Louis Kuo, the founder of Dragon Hot Pot, likes to fully commit to his restaurants. That means travelling to the mountains of Hanyuan, in China, to pick the right type of Sichuan pepper for his broth.
The bright red peppercorn he chose is grown high up in the mountains of the Sichuan countryside, which gives it a flagrant intensity. “The Sichuan pepper is so good there because of the high altitude, the climate and because there’s no pollution,” explains Kuo.
“Sichuan pepper always brings this numbness to your tongue and your mouth, but when you try this one, the numbness is pretty smooth and the aftertaste and aroma are very different.”
Sichuan pepper is the key ingredient of malatang, which translates to “spicy, numbing soup”. Dragon Hot Pot is the largest malatang chain in Australia, with nine stores across Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, and a few more about to open around the country. While malatang originated in Sichuan, the Beijing-style malatang is increasingly popular in Australia. Instead of cooking your food at the table, the ingredients you picked are cooked for you, and served in a bowl.
“People love hot pot in Australia, but you have to be [dining with] at least two or even four people, you need a couple of hours and it can be expensive,” says Kuo. Dragon Hot Pot, though, is different.
Its refrigerated shelves are filled with around a hundred different ingredients, which you choose and put into your bowl. There are a dozen types of noodles to choose from, ranging from udon to flat rice noodles to vermicelli. There is meat (various cuts of beef, pork and lamb), seafood (scallop, prawn, squid, mussels, calamari and clams), dumplings, tofu, fish balls, Chinese doughnuts and so on. Kuo’s favourites, which he grew up eating in Taiwan, are the sliced lamb, instant noodles and mushroom and pork balls.
Once you have your ingredients, your bowl is weighed ($3.38 per 100g) and you get to choose your broth.
“The Sichuan pepper is so good there because of the high altitude, the climate and because there’s no pollution.”
The signature broth contains over 23 herbs and spices, including the prized Sichuan pepper, as well as star anise, clove and black cardamom. It’s cooked for more than 12 hours with pork and beef bones. “It’s a bit spicy, a bit numbing, and very well-balanced. If you come for the first time, it’s the one you should try,” says Kuo. A vegan version is also available.
For a more intense, in-your-face, flavour, pick the hot and sour broth, flavoured with Chinese vinegar, chilli oil and Sichuan hot and sour sauce.
Both these broths come in four spiciness levels; mild to dragon hot. You can also add extra chilli and Sichuan pepper oil at the table, but you probably won’t need it.
If you can’t handle the heat, go for the rich and creamy collagen bone broth.
Kuo says that there’s no rule when it comes to malatang; you can build your bowl whatever way you want. But he does think it’s a good opportunity to try ingredients you’ve never had before.
“We have frog legs and chicken feet, we even had duck tongue at one stage,” he says. “For people who are adventurous and want to try different foods, it’s a good way to do it. At a restaurant, you’d need to order the whole dish, but here you can pick only one or two pieces and start with that.”
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