Sichuan Malatang Recipe: DIY Personal Hotpot
Making Malatang Personal Hotpot at Home
Malatang (麻辣烫, málàtàng), “spicy hotpot,” is an easily recognizable food trend from Sichuan beloved by on-the-fly diners, especially during the cold, damp winter. Whereas regular hotpot around a communal broth requires assembling whole groups for a 1-3 hour self-cooking affair, malatang vendors cook ingredients to order for you, then serve everything in a personal serving bowl with the piping hot hotpot broth.
Notable for operating out of cramped stalls and carts on narrow streets, malatang shops allow you to choose ingredients (pre-skewered, for speed and ease of vending) buffet- or cafeteria-style, usually by weight or number of skewers. Thus, it’s a favorite of solo diners and for quick street eats when you’re on your way home, out shopping, or just hanging out.
In short, it’s hotpot without the company or fanfare. And it’s even easier to make at home yourself: No longer do you need to shop for 4-6 of your hungriest carnivore friends and spend an hour cleaning up just to get a taste. Save the group hotpot for a rowdy night out or holiday occasion. Malatang will satisfy your everyday cravings for far less trouble.
You may use whatever hotpot ingredients you usually prefer, but the base almost always features a noodle (or combination of noodles). Chinese people love noodles when it comes to fast, filling meals. Think of malatang as a one-bowl noodle meal (albeit brimming with hotpot flavor)—quick, easy and cheap.
In Chongqing, there is even a malatang shop that, in the summer, sells up to 200 “iced malatang” portions a day. The owner, Luo Rong, freezes her beef stock and adds it to malatang to make the brutal summers more bearable.
Benefits of sweet potato noodles in hotpot
Wide sweet potato noodles are known simply as 宽粉 (kuānfěn), “wide starch (non-wheat) noodle.” They are ubiquitous in Sichuan hotpot, beloved for their slurpability and ability to absorb broth without contaminating it. Like all sweet potato noodles, they shed far less starch than wheat noodles when cooked, so they don’t cloud or mute your hotpot/malatang broth. I particularly like them in hotpot because they won’t fill you up as easily as wheat noodles. They are popular for many reasons.
Kuanfen don’t seem to be known much in the U.S., but don’t let that stop you from trying them in The Mala Market‘s new and upgraded Chongqing Sweet Potato Noodle Duo! Wulong Shaofen stone-grinds its sweet potato starch in a 16-step process that follows centuries of Chongqing sweet potato noodle-making tradition. The gluten-free flat noodles are fabulously chewy, bouncy, thick and juicy, a perfect companion to hotpot and all number of saucy and spicy broths. The caveat is that they must be soaked to evenly rehydrate before cooking, lest the edges overcook before the middle softens.
Quick-cooking instant ramen and rice noodles are also popular, as is doubling up on two types (usually sweet potato and wheat). I also love mung bean thread (“cellophane”) noodles in hotpot for their springiness and fine width.
Selecting ingredients for malatang
The foundation of malatang is in quick-cooking add-ins, unlike regular hotpot. The goal for malatang is generally to eat it asap, while hotpot is a group event that can last hours. So hotpot naturally features a much wider range of ingredients, including things that take longer to cook.
On the contrary, at-home malatang generally entails readily available pantry and produce options (hence the Spam—think budae-jjigae). Some popular ingredients do require pre-soaking (and parboiling, in the case of wood ear fungus), but the hands-on prep takes under a minute. Moreover, since malatang is eaten as a one-pot meal, there are no dipping sauces necessary. Add everything into the pot and garnish at the end!
- Ready-made hotpot broth, like this one from Chengdu’s famous Liu Po brand. With a great hotpot base on hand, all you need is water. Note that just like with hotpot, the oil broth is not made for sipping.
- Greens, veggies and mushrooms are the base of a great malatang. Veggies soak up flavor and provide textural interest, adding variety to the frozen fish/meat balls, soy puffs, sliced meats and canned Spam that are otherwise meaty staples of malatang and hotpot. If you have access to an Asian market, baby bok choy, yu choy, Chinese cabbage, pea tips, waxy potatoes, wood ear fungus, fresh shiitake and enoki mushrooms are my top picks. In a pinch, any grocery store will carry Napa cabbage, romaine lettuce, spinach, yellow potatoes and crimini mushrooms. Feel free to use whatever tender leafy greens and yummy veggies you can scrounge up. I particularly loved the Caraflex cabbage in this malatang.
- Tofu/tofu skin/beancurd products: Yes, this deserves its own category! Fresh tofu is a great, commonly available supermarket choice to make this dish more plant-based. But Chinese people especially love the range of dried tofu skin/frozen beancurd products: flat sheets of dried tofu skin you can slice into tagliatelle/pappardelle widths, cylindrical logs/sticks, flatter strips like the ones I used above, knots, fried tofu puffs, frozen tofu, the list goes on. It’s chewy and firm and light and a great way to add more variety to hotpot, especially for vegetarians.
- Meats: Believe it or not, this is the time for Spam, hams and even hot dogs to shine. Add whatever is on hand—the sliced meats and frozen fishballs here were leftover from a previous hotpot. Frozen/pre-cooked meats reign here because you can toss in only what you need, assuming you had it on hand already.
- Topping: I add garlic paste, sesame paste, crushed roasted peanut and cilantro leaves.
- Optional: 醪糟 (láozāo) is fermented glutinous/sweet rice, and to me it tastes how it sounds. In Sichuan it’s popular to add this to the broth. I only discovered in the past year this was not a universally loved flavor. I eat it by the spoonful the way some people take honey in the mornings. It is also known as 酒酿 (jiǔniàng).
When Sichuan style malatang found its way to Northeast China, the dish evolved to suit Dongbei tastes. For instance, while the base uses traditional mala hotpot broth, it’s frequently boosted by milk (yep). The milk color supposedly contrasts with the red-oil broth, making it more attractive, and its creaminess helps neutralize some of the salt and spiciness. So if you love hotpot but find the hotpot broth base a touch too spicy, try adding a splash of milk next time!
Soak wide sweet potato noodles for 1 hour in room temperature water. Soak tofu skin in water according to package instructions (denser types like “sticks” may take 6 hours, so be sure to read beforehand). Soak wood ear for 45-90 minutes, making sure to thoroughly scrub the ears of debris once softened and rinse in several changes of water until the liquid runs clear. Boil the soaked wood ear fungus for 2-4 minutes depending on size and set aside.
Add ¾ tablespoon sesame paste to 1 teaspoon sesame oil and combine with just enough hot unsalted stock/water to make a pourable sauce. Set aside.
Heat a small (1.5-2 quart) or narrow personal-sized pot over medium heat. You are essentially cooking as much as you wish to eat. Add the ½ cup of hotpot base and small splash of soy sauce, stir-frying until fragrant and oil turns red. Stir-fry slowly until simmering, then add the 2 cups water and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes to meld the flavors. The water level will reduce as time goes on, this is expected. Optional: Strain any solids, pressing out oil, and discard.
Add longer-cooking add-ins (frozen meat balls, mushrooms besides enoki, soaked wide noodles) to the simmering malatang broth while stirring so they don’t stick. Return to a boil for 1 minute and add the sliced tofu skin and potatoes. Simmer 5 minutes, then add the enoki mushrooms, Spam, wood ear fungus and greens. Once boiling, add the laozao (optional) and any thinly sliced meat and cook 15-30 seconds longer, until no longer pink and noodles are cooked through.
Since the broth is not for drinking, the majority of the pot should be add-ins. Ideally the ingredients are just submerged enough to cook (see above photos). Save the leftover hotpot base for round 2 tomorrow, or your next hotpot. Adjust the recipe to your liking if you’re more or less hungry.
Turn off the heat and divide between two bowls. Garnish with drizzle of sesame sauce, cilantro and chopped peanuts. Mix well and enjoy while hot!
Sichuan Malatang Recipe: DIY Personal Hotpot
- ¾ tablespoon sesame paste
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- drizzle hot stock (unsalted)/water, just enough to make it runny
- pinch salt to taste
- ½ cup hotpot base (scooped out of packet to get a proportionate amount of oil/paste)
- splash light soy sauce optional
- 2 cups hot water more if needed
- 1 tablespoon laozao (fermented sweet rice) optional
Add-ins (serving sizes optional)
- 8-10 whole wide sweet potato noodles, soaked 60-90 minutes (will expand upon cooking) or your fave instant/rice/wheat noodles
- 6-8 wood ear fungus, soaked 60-90 minutes
- handful tofu skin, soaked 60-90 minutes I prefer the thin strips/sheets, not sticks, for faster rehydrating
- handful mushrooms of choice (shiitake, oyster, enoki etc), larger caps scored cross-hatch bottom inch/toughness trimmed
- handful fave hotpot add-ins (i.e. fish/meat balls, crab sticks, sliced meats, wontons, etc) as desired
- 1 small waxy potato, peeled and sliced
- 2 handfuls greens of choice (cabbage, baby bok choy, yu choy, celtuce, snow pea tips, spinach, etc) approx. 1 cup per person — they cook down a lot!
- 2 cloves garlic, mashed into paste with a mortar/pestle, or minced and soaked in just enough water to cover for garnish
- 2 tablespoons roasted peanuts, chopped optional garnish
- cilantro, washed and chopped optional garnish
- Soak wide sweet potato noodles for 1 hour in room temperature water. Soak tofu skin in water according to package instructions (denser types like "sticks" may take 6 hours, so be sure to read beforehand). Soak wood ear for 45-90 minutes, making sure to thoroughly scrub the ears of debris once softened and rinse in several changes of water until the liquid runs clear. Boil the soaked wood ear fungus for 2-4 minutes depending on size and set aside.
- Add ¾ tablespoon sesame paste to 1 teaspoon sesame oil and combine with just enough hot unsalted stock/water to make a pourable sauce. Set aside.
Malatang broth (can be prepared 1 day ahead)
- Heat a small (1.5-2 quart) or narrow pot over medium heat. Add the ½ cup of hotpot base and small splash of soy sauce, stir-frying until fragrant and oil turns red. Stir-fry slowly until simmering, then add the 2 cups water and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes to meld the flavors. Optional: Strain any solids, pressing out oil, and discard.
- Add longer-cooking add-ins (frozen meat balls, mushrooms besides enoki, soaked wide noodles) to the simmering malatang broth while stirring so they don't stick. Return to a boil for 1 minute and add the sliced tofu skin and potatoes. Simmer 5 minutes, then add the enoki mushrooms, Spam, wood ear fungus and greens. Once boiling, add the laozao (optional) and any thinly sliced meat and cook 15-30 seconds longer until no longer pink and noodles are cooked through.Since the broth is not for drinking, the majority of the pot should be add-ins. Ideally the ingredients are just submerged enough to cook (see above photos).Turn off the heat and divide between two bowls. Garnish with drizzle of sesame sauce, cilantro and chopped peanuts. Mix well and enjoy while hot!