How to Do Hotpot the Sichuan Way (Mala Huoguo, 麻辣火锅) | Jordan Porter
Published Oct 22, 2017, Updated Oct 21, 2023
Expect Spice, Texture and Booze
This week we have a dispatch from our man in Chengdu about the Sichuan hotpot experience. If at all possible you want to experience it in Chengdu or Chongqing, but he also gives some clues as to how to make mala hotpot at home. I’ll follow up soon with a recipe for the real deal. And we also have some dang-good, readymade hotpot soup bases in the Market.
By Jordan Porter—Hotpot has become the poster child for Sichuan cuisine and the intensity of its desire for burning hot, spicy flavors and bubbling atmosphere. It is written about as a fiery pot of boiling chilies, oil and offal, often in a manner that strikes fear into the hearts of visitors and seasoned spice lovers alike. To be sure hotpot is spicy and tingly and numbing and intense, but it’s also so much more than that, and there are many ways to enjoy it, even for those without the highest spice tolerance or a preference for duck intestines.
Huoguo, or hotpot, directly translates to “fire pot,” meaning that the pot is being cooked in the middle of the table, not that it is hot and spicy. As such, it can theoretically be any type of soup, and there are different versions of non-spicy hot pots across China, and even some amazing ones in Sichuan. But for the most part in Sichuan, hotpot refers to numbing and spicy mala huoguo, which originated in Chongqing (when it was still part of Sichuan). This is arguably the most famous hotpot in China and, dare I say, the best. Let’s be honest, the others are just soups the restaurant makes you cook yourself, right?
There is no single recipe for hotpot, and even the Chongqing style can vary greatly, but there are some basics. The base flavors are from doubanjiang (chili bean paste), fermented soybeans, pickled chilis, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger and garlic, which are fried with rendered beef fat, or tallow, into a tasty orange blob. This is then melted into a pork-bone or chicken broth and cooked with more chilis, more peppercorns, and spices such as fennel seed, black cardamom and a type of galangal know as shannai, or sand ginger. (Of course it’s not all oil, or everything would be deep fried.)
The depth of flavor comes from the umami waves of the fermented and pickled ingredients, which are accented by the aromatics, spices and chilis and filled out by the soup. There is a lot going on, and the flavor goes much deeper than just the spice. In fact, it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly spicy. Like any good food in Sichuan, and any good cuisine, it is about achieving a balance of those flavors. But for those who do find it overwhelmingly spicy, it is fair to get a half-and-half pot, where one section is filled with a clear, mild soup, made with fish or chicken broth, ginger, onions and tomato. That way you can take a break between spicy bites—even if some snarky purists like myself might judge you.
What those new to hotpot often don’t realize is that a huoguo experience is really about texture, and how texture changes the way we interact with flavor and experience different tastes. The flavors of a classic CQ hotpot are broad and heavy and, let’s face it, overtake that of most of the ingredients. So when selecting different ingredients to cook in the pot, it is not so much about their flavor as it is the texture they bring, and how that changes what you taste and the way you taste it. If all you did was order tender meat and soft veggies your experience would be the same the whole meal—and boring should be the last word you’d use to describe your hotpot experience.
Ingredients like chicken gizzards, duck intestines and rabbit kidneys are sought after for their unique textures and are often sold for more than beef slices and meatballs because of they way they enhance the mouthfeel. The amount of time you spend with an ingredient, the intensity of your chewing, its resistance or submission, all change how you taste the flavors from the pot. Any “strange taste” you might be worried about will be offset by the flavors of the hotpot itself and leave mainly a textural interaction. Even if you don’t go for the offal (which you really should), you should mix it up with different-textured mushrooms, tofus, sweet potato noodles, crisp vegetables like lotus root and dried veggies like gongcai. The variety will give the crunchy, chewy, crispy and gooey textures that paint a dynamic picture on your palate.
Having said all this, hotpot is most definitely not about stifling rules. It is, as much as anything, a celebration. It is a party and a meal, an integral part of socializing, and a manifestation of the epicurean excitement Sichuan embodies. Though people here eat out a lot, at all kinds of restaurants, hotpot is the celebratory meal—even if that means just celebrating a Wednesday night, or the fact that you are eating hotpot. It lends itself to a long, noisy eating and drinking event. There is no rush in hotpot. It is interactive and people cook slowly, picking at different foods and ordering additional dishes as the night wears on.
The spice and jovial atmosphere make a hotpot meal prone to becoming a drinking session as well, whether it’s light beer to cool the heat or baijiu (local sorghum spirit) to cut through the flavors. Hotpot restaurants are loud and noisy, or renao—bustling with the energy of a concert more than that of a diner. This atmosphere is just as important to understanding the addiction to hotpot as the flavors and textures themselves. Hotpot conjures a hot, bubbling, lively scene both on the table and around it.
Jordan Porter is owner and chief experience officer at Chengdu Food Tours. Contact him for culinary tours, workshops and food adventures in Sichuan.
All photos copyright Chengdu Food Tours.