Sichuan Mala Hot Pot, From Scratch (Mala Huo Guo)
The Ultimate Party Food~~
There are two things to know about making Sichuan-style mala hot pot at home. First, it takes almost every item in the Sichuan pantry to make the spicy soup from scratch. And second, it also requires an electric hot pot or other heat source at the table. But I’m here to tell you it is worth the trouble to acquire everything it takes, because after you make the soup broth, the cooking is done and stress-free, since diners will take over from there. And mala hot pot is a celebration, whether you are eating it in a Chengdu restaurant or serving it in your own home. There is just something inherently festive about gathering around the bubbling pot and cooking your own food at your own pace while interacting in a real way with friends and family. It’s an activity. An event. Interactive entertainment that doesn’t involve a screen.
After nearly four years of blogging about cooking Sichuan food, I have finally produced a recipe for mala hot pot that very much approximates the way it’s done in Sichuan. Why did it take me so long? Well, for one thing, readymade hot pot soup base is pretty dang good, and really easy. But if you eat it too often its myriad ingredients and additives start to taste, paradoxically, a little one-note. So I finally experimented enough to come up with a super scratch version.
I try not to buy unnecessary kitchen equipment, but a hot pot does not fall in that category in our house. We use it at least once a month. Our starter hot pot was an electric one (similar to this)—just plug it in, fill it and go. It was a Sichuan-style pot, divided down the center so one can make a yin/yang pot of half spicy broth, half mild broth. It served us well for years, but this Christmas I decided to treat myself to a more substantial hot pot (see top photo). An heirloom, if you will, since the handmade copper pot I invested in and imported from China will undoubtedly serve our family for years to come and Fong Chong’s future family for the years after that. (She’ll be much more excited about that inheritance than the French copper pots that will come along with it.)
(I am so thrilled with my gorgeous and super heat-conducting copper hot pot, which is the norm in upscale hot pot places in Sichuan, that I have decided to import and sell a similar one, but with handles, close to the one in the photo just below but of yin/yang design. Let me know if you are interested in one, or watch for it at The Mala Market!)
You can also use a stainless steel hot pot or comparable flame-proof pan of adequate depth (like a dutch oven). These pots require a separate heat source, either a portable gas burner (powered by butane canister) or induction burner, both of which are affordable, easy to use and don’t require an unsightly cord snaking out from the pot and across the table to an outlet. I decided on this Japanese Iwatani gas burner and am very happy with it.
I started with a recipe in the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine’s Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English and followed the basic procedure but adapted it in several ways. Mala hot pot is a mix of super-spiced broth and super-spiced oil. You make the broth and the spiced oil separately and then mix them together in the hot pot for cooking raw ingredients at the table. (Some may point out that this recipe is not entirely from scratch because I am starting with boxed chicken stock. However it seems unnecessary to go to the time and trouble to make five quarts of chicken stock that you’re only going to inundate with tons of seasoning.)
In Chengdu and Chongqing the oil is usually rendered beef fat, or tallow. While it might sound scary, lots of people are convinced that rendered animal fat—pork lard, beef tallow, chicken schmaltz—is healthier than the highly processed and refined oils we generally use for cooking, including vegetable and canola oils. Because of that, tallow is easier to find nowadays than it used to be. A good butcher should have some, or the Fatworks brand is made with grass-fed beef and is available at Amazon and Thrive Market.
Beef tallow gives hot pot another layer of flavor for sure. However, as we experienced in one hot pot place in Chengdu this past summer, too much tallow makes the hot pot, the room and you smell like a barnyard. So I’ve opted for a mix of tallow and canola oil in this recipe. Alternatively, you can go with canola oil only, and it will still be plenty flavorful, just not quite as savory and deep.
The premade hot pot mixes you can buy in Chinese grocery stores (or at The Mala Market) do not as of yet include beef tallow, as animal products are harder to get by the FDA. But check out these readymade sauces we saw on the streets of Chongqing, which are compressed blocks of coagulated beef tallow and spicy mix, ready to melt down in the pot with some water. You see these packaged in Sichuan too, though I’ve not seen them in the U.S.
My recipe may look like I’m trying to start a fire, but you’re using a lot of broth so it takes a whole lot of chilies and spices to get the flavor and intensity one expects in a proper Sichuan hot pot. It does not pay to have a light hand, as mala hot pot is meant to be just that, ma (numbing) and la (spicy). The other half of the pot is for the mild stuff, a slightly doctored chicken broth. This is to allow those with a lower spice tolerance to enjoy hot pot and also comes in handy to dunk ingredients whose flavor you want to taste on their own. Craig and I tend to use both sides, whereas chili fiend Fong Chong uses only the spicy side.
Likewise, I tend to give everyone two small dishes to mix their own dipping sauces. With Sichuan mala hot pot, the food comes out of the pot already highly flavored, so the dip of choice in Chengdu is simply toasted sesame oil mixed with vegetable oil and fresh garlic and maybe MSG and cilantro. Food cooked in the mild side (or in northern-Chinese or Mongolian hot pot) needs a flavor boost, so northerners often add some runny sesame paste as well as black vinegar and maybe soy sauce and chili oil to their dipping bowl. Some hot pot restaurants offer a sauce bar with a couple dozen ingredients for concocting your own idiosyncratic blend.
Once you’ve got your hot pot soups and dipping sauces squared away, then you can focus on the wide array of things that can be cooked in the hot pot. The choice here is pretty endless, but here are some ideas to get you started:
- Very thinly sliced beef, lamb, pork, chicken (You can buy these meats pre-sliced for hot pot in Asian markets; or freeze a larger chunk of meat and thinly slice it yourself with a very sharp knife; or, if you’re a hot pot obsessive, invest in this home deli-meat slicer, which seems to be specifically for hot pot)
- Seafood including thinly sliced white fish, whole scallops, shrimp, Asian fish balls (a vast assortment of which can be found in large Asian markets)
- Dried tofu “skin” (pre-soaked in hot water), fried tofu puffs
- Offal such as chicken hearts and gizzards, beef tripe, and anything else you fancy with interesting textures (see this post about eating hot pot in Sichuan to understand the necessity of different textures in the hot pot)
- Green vegetables like spinach, baby bok choy or yu choy, thinly sliced zucchini or cucumber (cucumber vertically sliced on a mandolin is one of our faves), winter melon
- Root vegetables such as thinly sliced lotus root, potato, turnip, daikon
- Mushrooms: shitake, enoki, portobello
- Noodles: pre-soaked sweet potato noodles, fresh udon, or other types of noodles that don’t release a lot of starch
You can get some more ideas from the drop-dead gorgeous photos on the website of Manhattan’s new show-stopping Sichuan hot pot place called Tang Hotpot, which reminds me so much of Sichuan I can’t stand it and can’t wait to try it. Tang advertises that its hot pot includes 30 Chinese spices, both culinary and medicinal, as restaurant versions often do. My version includes nine spices. Yours can include however many Chinese spices you have. The only must-haves are whole and ground Sichuan pepper and whole and ground Sichuan chili peppers.
When you think about all the different flavors in the hot pot and in the dipping sauce as well as the diverse kinds of ingredients that can be cooked in the pot, you get a sense of why this meal is so exciting. And why it can go on for hours. And even more hours if accompanied by cold beer. And good friends.
Don’t wait as long as I did. Make this!
P.S. For those of you who’d like to buy the soup ingredients from The Mala Market, everything is back in stock—including the first (legal) untreated Sichuan pepper in the U.S.! Visit the store to stock up for Chinese New Year and use code CNY10 for 10 percent off your order (through Feb. 16).
- 1 cup canola or peanut oil
- 3 inches peeled ginger, sliced in coins
- 5 scallions, cut in sections
- 1 tablespoon Chinese five spice (or a handful of whole spices such as star anise, fennel seed, cassia bark, clove, bay leaf, sand ginger, etc.)
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 Chinese black cardamom (cao guo) (optional)
- ½ cup Pixian chili bean paste (Pixian doubanjiang)
- 4 tablespoons fermented black soybeans (douchi), rinsed, soaked briefly, and mashed with a fork into a rough paste
- 3 tablespoons Yibin Suimiyacai (preserved vegetable)
- 6 tablespoons Sichuan ground chilies
- 2 quarts boxed chicken stock
- ½ cup Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons ground, roasted Sichuan pepper
- 1 teaspoon MSG or 1 tablespoon mushroom powder (optional)
- 1 cup beef tallow (or substitute with oil)
- 1½ cups Sichuan whole dried chilies
- 3 to 4 tablespoons whole red Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 quarts boxed chicken stock
- ¼ cup Shaoxing wine
- 4 scallions, cut in sections
- 1 tomato, quartered, or a handful of Chinese dried dates (jujubes) (optional)
- 1 quart boxed chicken stock, kept warm
- Reference list in story above, but basically anything you like, sliced thin for cooking: meats and seafood, offal, green and root vegetables, different forms of tofu, mushrooms, Chinese noodles, etc.
- Add canola or peanut oil to a dutch oven or soup pot and heat over a medium flame. Add ginger, scallions, five spice, cumin and cardamom and stir until fragrant. Add chili bean paste, fermented black beans, suimiyacai and ground chilies and cook for a couple minutes. Pour in 2 quarts stock and bring to a boil. Add wine, sugar, ground Sichuan pepper, and MSG or mushroom powder if using. Reduce heat and simmer soup at a very low boil for 10 minutes. Turn off heat and allow soup to steep while you prepare the other hot pot ingredients, preferably at least half an hour.
- Prepare foods to be cooked by slicing them thinly and arranging nicely on individual plates, or grouping like ingredients on large plates. Leave shrimp, scallops, meat balls and fish balls, etc., whole.
- Gather condiments for dipping sauces. Mince garlic, scallions and cilantro if using. If using sesame paste, mix it with sesame oil to get a runny, mixable condiment.
- Make the mild soup by pouring ingredients directly into cold hot pot on one side: 2 quarts chicken stock, wine and scallions as well as tomato or jujubes if using.
- Return to spicy soup and pour it through a strainer to remove larger ingredients. Or just use a large strainer scoop or slotted spoon to fish out most of the sediment. Pour the soup into the other side of the cold hot pot.
- In a clean pot, bring remaining quart of chicken stock to a boil, turn off heat and cover. This can be used to top off both sides of the hot pot as the soups bubble away. Alternatively, use hot water from a kettle.
- In a wok or sauce pan, heat tallow over medium heat just until melted. Add whole chili peppers and whole Sichuan peppercorns and heat briefly, letting them sizzle but not brown. Pour this oil on top of the spicy soup in the cold hot pot.
- Plug in your electric hot pot and turn it to high or ignite your portable gas burner and turn flame to high. It will take five minutes or so for the two soups to come to a gentle boil, so this is a good time for everyone to mix their dipping sauces. Adjust the heat to keep a gentle boil and begin adding ingredients to the pot a few at a time. Keep an eye on steak and seafood, which will not take much time to cook. Cooking those ingredients in a ladle or special hot pot strainer is a good idea, or just hold them under the broth with your chopsticks so they don't get lost in the soup.
- Cook, dip and eat to your heart's content!