Mala Dry Pot With Cauliflower, Snap Peas and Bacon (Ganguo Caihua)
Weeknight Dry Pot
I’m not sure y’all believed me the first time I shared a recipe for dry pot (ganguo or mala xiangguo), back in September 2015. Perhaps I did not convey how delicious it truly is. Or perhaps it seemed like too much effort. Or perhaps you’d just never heard of it—which is highly possible if you live outside China, where it’s been trendy for years. But dry pot is making its play in the U.S., moving out of the San Gabriel Valley to other places on the trending edge of Chinese food, so you’ll probably get a chance to try it before long. And then you’ll believe me.
A little over a year ago a restaurant opened in Manhattan’s East Village that specializes in dry pot. Its name, rather surprisingly, is Málà Project, and it’s gotten good reviews from both critics and my readers for its spicy pots. As is sometimes the set-up in China, you choose your proteins and vegetables from a long menu, and the chef quickly woks it all together in a house sauce of epic flavor and, usually, spiciness. The Málà Project owner shared one of the restaurant’s recipes with Tasting Table last year, which allows a peek into its house sauce. Even though that recipe doesn’t include all the 24 Chinese spices the chef uses—including, according to The New York Times, “orange peel, black cardamom, gardenias soaked and ground into powder, and Chinese medicines like dong quai (often called female ginseng)”—it’s appropriately complex, with close to 20 ingredients for the sauce alone.
So I haven’t tried that recipe because it also looks like a weekend-long project. My own recipe for Dry Pot Chicken is involved enough to be best for a weekend night. But perhaps you’ll try my newest dry pot recipe, which is simplified enough to be a weeknight dry pot. That’s exactly how it came about, as I tried to quickly whip up something for Fongchong and me out of the vegetables in the fridge and took a few shortcuts with the recipe. Turns out we love it just as much as, if not more than, the dry pot chicken.
Other blogger recipes for mala xiangguo, which this dish is often called and which people seem to agree is a type of ganguo—a more complex and hedonistic version—start with making an oil infused with a dozen or so spices, then adding doubanjiang and a readymade hotpot sauce as the sauce. But like I said, this is weeknight dry pot, so I’m adding the spices directly to the pot along with a healthy dose of Sichuan chili flakes and Pixian douban, which is always in my fridge, of course, as it goes in so many Sichuan dishes. The sauce is a very close approximation of that for mala xiangguo with a fraction of the ingredients.
This version also has fewer main ingredients than the norm, as it is mostly vegetables and a bit of bacon. You can add more ingredients. You can add whatever you like. Just make sure to pre-cook each item, as it won’t be in the wok long enough to cook. Fongchong prefers a version with tofu skin. Shrimp is nice. Or leave out the meat/fish for a vegetarian version that still has massive taste.
You can make mala dry pot even quicker next time by mixing up a small batch of the dry pot spices for the cupboard. Or you can make it even quicker than that—as I often do—by forgoing the spices and douban altogether and using our readymade mala xiangguo sauce. That’s true weeknight cooking.
To adapt this recipe for the readymade mala dry pot sauce we sell in The Mala Market, omit the spice mix and the doubanjiang. Add 3 tablespoons of the mala xiangguo sauce in their place in Step 5.
Mala Dry Pot With Cauliflower, Snap Peas and Bacon (Ganguo Caihua)
- 2 teaspoons Sichuan chili flakes
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground Sichuan pepper (or more if your Sichuan pepper is not fresh and strong)*
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon ground or crushed cumin seeds
- ½ teaspoon crushed fennel seeds
- ½ teaspoon mushroom powder (optional)
- 4 strips thick-cut American bacon, cut in ½-inch pieces (or a similar smoked meat or vegetarian substitute of your choosing)
- 1 small head cauliflower, cut and separated into bite-size chunks
- 10 ounces sugar snap peas, sliced crosswise ¼-inch thick
- 1 medium onion, thickly sliced
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 serrano chili, thinly sliced
- 8-10 whole dried Sichuan chilies (cut in half with seeds included for more heat)
- 1 tablespoon Pixian doubanjiang (chili bean paste)
- ⅓ cup chicken stock or water
- Make the spice mix by combining all ingredients in a small bowl.
- Heat wok over a high flame until wisps of heat start to rise, add bacon pieces and cook until crispy. Remove and drain on a paper towel.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add cauliflower. When the water returns to a boil, cook cauliflower at a low boil for about 2 minutes. Add the sugar snap peas and cook with the cauliflower for 1 more minute, or until both vegetables are cooked but not soft. Drain vegetables in a colander.
- Clean wok and return to high heat. When wok is hot, add 1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil and heat until hot. Add onions to the wok and stiry-fry until they are wilted and starting to brown along the edges. Remove the onions and hold.
- Reheat wok, add 3 tablespoons oil, heat briefly and add the garlic and serrano chili. Stir-fry briefly then add the dried Sichuan chilies and stir-fry until they are fragrant but not burned. Push the garlic and chilies to the sides of the wok and add the spice mix to the well of oil in the center. Let it sizzle briefly, until fragrant, then add the chili bean paste and let cook briefly. Add the chicken stock or water and mix well.
- Add the cauliflower, snap peas, onion and bacon to the wok in that order, stir-frying and mixing all components together. When well mixed and hot, remove to a serving platter or bowl. Serve with steamed rice.
I do believe Chinese cooking uses more spices than most Americans are used to or know about, in general, and in Sichuan cooking particularly. It is refreshing to see something like this, even though I didn’t know about it. So much is lost in “translation ” as it were.
I have a question about the gardenias. Do you know if they are the flowers or the pods that are used in Chinese cooking. Here in Japan, gardenia pods, possibly seed pods, I am not sure, are used as a coloring agent in a sweet potato paste made for New Years celebrations. The sweet potatoes are cooked with the gardenia pods and turn a lovely bright yellow. The pods are about as large as an eda mame green pod, they are dried and quite hard. They are used whole and removed before mashing the sweet potatoes.
Here is a link in Japanese. Scroll down to see the gardenia seed pods used in japanese cooking. If you scroll down some more, you can see the sweet potato/chestnut dish made called Kurikinton that is colored by the gardenia seed pods:
Hi Pamela. This is interesting. I’m just learning about the more unique Chinese spices, which could be a lifetime’s pursuit. I’ll eventually do another dry pot recipe where I use a larger assortment of Chinese spices. I’ve never seen this spice, but it probably is the same as used in China. Very cool. Nice blog too. Thanks for sharing.
My dream has come true! Fabulous recipes and it is SO EASY to order the specialty ingredients. I am excited to have placed my first order! I am even more excited to try this! Yay Taylor and Fong Chung! xo
Thank you, Juli! I love to picture you guys eating this. In fact, send photos! xo
We made it tonight and it was perfect! So subtle and delicious! And thank you for the beans in chili oil. I admit I was eating from the jar. Thank you so much! Can’t wait to try more!
Yay! Glad to hear it was a success. Though if the readymade mala xiang guo sauce you used was “subtle,” you might want to use more next time. Ha!
Are you supposed to eat the dried peppers? I thought they were delicious hot but chewy. I ate the leftovers last night unheated and the peppers had softened. They were much less subtle! BTW, I posted photos on Facebook and tagged you. I couldn’t figure how to post here.
People don’t generally eat the dried peppers–but I sometimes do! That’s definitely where the heat is. I also sometimes add fresh chilies to this.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to share those great pics on The Mala Project’s FB page. Thanks for sending!
Such an easy dish to prepare, and such a tasty result! I can see where one can go off in a zillion directions with this technique.
Thanks much for the feedback, Paul. Glad you liked it!
Your wok is beautiful. Where did you get it?
Thanks, Frances. I think it’s beautiful too, with its 10-year-old patina. I bought it online from The Wok Shop in San Francisco. I looked recently and she still sells it. I’ve been very happy with it, though it would be nice to have a small gripper handle on the other side, as it can get pretty heavy with food in it.
DELICIOUS and quite easy. My low-carb (diabetic) husband favors cauliflower and he loved this though he’s much more uneasy about “exotic” flavors at times. I accidentally overcooked the cauliflower before everything came together and that was an unexpected success as it gave the dish a comforting potato-like texture. Really good though and I’ll make it again.
Thanks, Marla! I hadn’t thought about this dish being low carb, but indeed it is. In fact, all dry pots are, because there’s so much going on they don’t really need a rice accompaniment. It’s also satisfying as a main dish, even though it’s mainly vegetables. Thanks so much for trying it and for your feedback!
I just made this Gan Guo Hua Cai recipe and it is even better than I had while living in China! Incredible! My Chinese husband is so happy! 100/10 would make again
How great to hear, Kelly! Thanks so much for reading and sharing your experience with us 🙂