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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Hot new hawker craze: Mala xiang guo

People pick what they want from a selection of ingredients and these are then stirfried in a chilli-laden gravy.
January 17, 2013
By: Eunice Quek
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Hot new hawker craze: Mala xiang guo

It is lunch time and long queues are forming at People's Park Food Centre, along a stretch of stalls that serves food from China.

Hungry diners cough and sneeze at the fiery fumes wafting out from three stalls selling a new hawker food craze - mala xiang guo, which mean hot numbing fragrant pot in English.

Instead of the usual mala hotpot, where diners dip raw vegetables, seafood and meat into a spicy soup that numbs the tongue, people pick what they want from a selection of ingredients and these are then stirfried in a chilli-laden gravy.

Ingredients commonly used for steamboat meals, such as leafy greens, mushrooms, meats and seafood, are available.

Other ingredients such as broccoli florets and sliced lotus root can also be added to the stirfry.

Diners tell the stall assistants what they want and choose the level of spiciness - low, medium or high.

The ingredients are then stir-fried in a fiery gravy made with a variety or herbs and spices.

The final dish is eaten with rice. An average bowl costs about $5 and is good for two people.

There are no fewer than six outlets selling this dish here. 

Three are in People's Park Food Centre, one in Geylang, and two at Food Republic food courts.

The customers are mostly China nationals who are familiar with the dish, which is popular all over China, but especially in Sichuan and Beijing.

Stall owners, however, say that local diners are also catching the chilli bug.

Henan-born Zou Hai Rong, 42, owner of Ri Ri Hong Mala Xiang Guo (above) at People's Park Food Centre, says in Mandarin: "Mala hotpot is popular here, but Singaporeans cannot take the spicy and oily soup."

"Mala xiang guo is a good alternative, and it still includes fresh ingredients. If diners request, we don't add the spicy sauce."

"Also, many busy executives have no time to sit over hotpot during lunch. So with mala xiang guo, they can just eat quickly and go back to the office."

The stall opened almost a year ago and business has been so good that Ms Zou opened another one a stone's throw away in the same food centre.

A few doors down, Mala Xiang Guo Ju also gets a steady stream of customers.

Former restaurant chef Zhang Bin, 38, who has been in Singapore for 10 years, decided to open his own outlet after noticing that diners were catching on to food from China.

The Xi'an native says: "The most important thing is making a flavourful gravy. It's quite addictive and many customers who start off with the low level of spiciness will come back for the higher ones."

One such diner is Malaysian student Tan Yong Lee, 19, who eats mala xiang guo once a week. She says: "A lot of food in Singapore is very sweet, so when I came across these stalls I was very happy as I love spicy food.

"I've brought my friends here too, but not all of them can handle the hear, even though I take only the low or medium spice level."

If you do not want to break a sweat in the hawker centre, mala xiang guo is also available in food courts and a restaurant in Geylang.

Food court chain Food Republic has two Fragrant Hot Pot stalls at 313@Somerset and Katong I12 to cater to the influx of Chinese nationals and tourists to Singapore.

A spokesman for Food Republic says: "The first stall at 313@Somerset opened in 2009 but started off slow as Singaporeans did not really understand or were able to accept the different levels of mala. But now, business has improved."

The stall in Katong opened in November 2011.

There are also plans to expand the brand into other food courts.

Guangdong-born Lei Ling, 26, who has been in Singapore for four years, says: "I eat mala xiang guo occasionally as it is an authentic Sichuan cuisine which I enjoy. It is also not expensive. For less than $10, my boyfriend and I can have a proper meal."

Mr Nathan Lim, 28, an accountant, says he savours the fiery flavours of the dish with his colleagues at least once a month.

He says: "You get a huge portion for a very reasonable price, what's not to like?"

"Five of us can share a $15 portion and order other yummy dishes from People's Park Food Centre. We've also graduated to the medium level of spicinessas it's really quite shiok."

Spicy Secrets

The fiery, spicy gravy that makes mala xiang guo so addictive is not a factorymade hot sauce.

It is a laborious layering of flavours with more than 20 herbs and spices, say the owners SundayLife! spoke to.

So it takes some persuasion before Ma La Xiang Guo Ju's owner Zhang Bin allows SundayLife! to watch and take photographs as he makes his secret sauce.

He says in Mandarin: "Everyone guards their sauce recipe very carefullyas that is what differentiates us from others.

"We have to fry the ingredients first and let it simmer for a few hours. Then we transfer it to a big pot and let it cook for two days."

The key ingredients include Sichuan peppercorns, dried and fresh chillies, star anise, cloves, garlic, bay leaves and spring onions.

Depending on how spicy diners want the sidh to be, additional chillies and spices can be added on request.

There is a wide variety of vegetables seafood and meats to choose from, and those that soak up the sauce best are mushrooms and leafy greens. 

Instead of rice, customers can opt for vermicelli which is tossed together with the ingredients and gravy.

Those who want to live dangerously should order the highest level of spiciness. 

Have on hand tissues for the sniffles and copious sweating that will follow.

euniceq@sph.com.sg

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