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Special Chinese recipe

106. Hot and spicy pot (Vegetarian Ma la tang) I

 

Chinese Ma La Tang

 

After weeks of my mother-in-law’s amazing Spanish food, I started cooking myself again. You know what, I found myself panicking a bit, also with a little bit memory loss — I could not remember where the things are in our own kitchen. — How much I have been spoiled in the past a few weeks!


Anyway, today, I am sharing this Hot and spicy pot recipe… not only the recipe, but also the stories associated to this famous dish. :))

Hot and spicy pot in Chinese is originally called ‘Ma La Tang’. Ma means ‘numb’, which is the signature of Sichuan cuisine – your lip could get a bit numb because of its spiciness. “La” means hot and spicy. “Tang”, here means a Chinese cooking method that I have not mentioned before — ‘to quickly dip into the very hot soup, for example, to the food done or half done’. So, just according to its name, you probably already guessed that this dish is different to the others. :) It is kind of similar to the famous Chinese ‘hot-pot’.

Ma la tang / hot and spicy pot is probably is one of the most popular ‘ordinary’ dishes in Chinese cuisine. :)) And, sorry, I have lots to talk about it — too much nostalgia, homesick, ‘foodsick’, you name it.

This hot & spicy hot originated in Sichuan province, which, as you probably already know, is famous for its spicy food.
It is said that long long time ago, in Sichuan, because of its humidity and foggy weather, local boatmen and trackers often just set up a pot on a fire, then added in some ingredients like, Sichuan peppercorn, chili peppers, etc. into the pot, and get some local wild green leaves to ‘quickly dip into the pot’ to eat. It can fill up the empty stomach, also good to get rid of the discomfort of the body from the damp weather. Gradually, this way of cooking developed into today’s hot and spicy pot, which you can in almost everywhere in China: in the food courts, in the restaurants, and even in the streets’ small food stores.

When I was in China, there were a couple of small food stores just outside the school where I worked. I often sneaked out for a small pot, along with a little chat with the old lady who was selling it. Or sometimes, we would buy them to take away, then have it with some steamed Chinese bread. It was simple and cheap, but tasty. Saying this, I feel like I could almost see the steam from the pot and smell it from far away.

Well, but I cannot really eat all kinds of Ma La Tang, as some more traditional ones have some ‘pork blood’ in them, which is also called ‘blood tofu’ in Chinese. As I don’t eat pork, so most of the time, I have to be very careful. So I guess if you are vegetarian, you have to be careful when buying this hot and spicy pot in China, as you might see, most of the ingredients in the pot are just vegetable leaves.

So what the ingredients? Normally you would have a large amount of choice to choose from, they are on the ‘barbecue’ sticks, so Ma La Tang is also called ‘Chuan Chuan xian’, means every stick is tasty. They are mainly green leaves, tofu in all different forms and Fensi, which includes Chinese pok choi, spinach, coriander, fried tofu (tofu pao), tofu in sheets, paper tofu, mushrooms, and many more, often fish balls as well. The venders would hold the ends of the sticks, and dip the rest in the boiling soup. When serving, they will strip the vegetables or others off to a bowl, then add in a couple of spoons of soup the top. But in some regions in China, you might just get the dry version without the soup.

Ok, by now, I think you probably already guessed that all the secrets are actually in the soup, especially if the vegetables are only just for dipping, they certainly are not contributing the taste of the pot. But all the seasonings in the pot are really difficult to name in Chinese, some of them are not very common or easy to buy in the supermarkets at all, and there are almost over 20 different seasonings responsible for the taste. They include chili soy beans, dried chili pepper, Sichuan peppercorn, old ginger, garlic, rice wine, salt, crystal sugar, cooking wine, MSG, chicken stock, white pepper, Gansong (fragrance grass), clove, anise star, fennel, Cao guo (black cardamom), Sha ren (Cardamon), San nai (resurrection lily), Ling cao ( Licorice roots), Pai cao (anisochilus ?), cinnamon, cumin seeds, bay leaves… —- I know, they are too too many. Some of these ingredients can actually be used in Chinese herbal medicines, so you can imagine how healthy this pot can be! :) Along with these ingredients, there is some pork meat and bones added in as well. And all the ingredients are boiled for hours and hours.

It sounds really crazy, I only just found this when I was checking some original recipes for it. But I don’t think many vendors, especially people make it at home really go through this so complicated process. In my next post, I will share the way I make it, much simpler, probably not as ‘medical purposed’ as the original one, but taste not bad. :)) So see you tomorrow, if you are still interested!! :))

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