Hot Pot, or steamboat, is a communal dish beloved of Chinese people all over the world. A pot of hot soup is placed in the middle of the table. Ingredients are dipped into the simmering soup and eaten as it is cooked. My father tells me that in the old days of China, people would eat hot pot in winter, the simmering soup full of good ingredients provided much comfort and warmth against the bitter cold. Of course nowadays we eat it anytime we like, there is no winters here.
In typical Singapore fashion, we have moved on somewhat from the simple home-style hot pot of a clear stock made from pork or chicken bones. Nowadays, the soup base comes in more exotic variations like tom yam or Chinese herbal brews. And at the Road Side Stall Hot Pot Restaurant this evening, where our group of dedicated foodies gathered for our monthly dinner, we revisited two of our most favourite versions. A fiery ma-la soup that renders lips, palate and tongue numb (ma) and hot (la) on one side of the pot, and a comforting and nourishing brew of country chicken and hua-tiao wine on the other side. Great for people who cannot make up their minds.
The mala soup came to Singapore about 6-7 years ago. Chongqing Restaurant still exists today at Tanglin Shopping Centre, and they first introduced this love-it-or-hate-it dish. It originates in China, and the main ingredient that causes the ma-la effect is the Szechuan peppercorn. Husband loves mala while I have learnt to tolerate it. It is not spicy as my tastebud's impression of spicy, still, it can be painfully hot. The numbness and pungency is another issue for me. But as they say, one man's meat .....Mala is ambrosia for others, such as my husband. And also my friend Andrew Wong, who is so passionate about this dish he opened his own hot pot restaurant. Andrew informed me that his recipe is typical of the style usually found in China, although the heat factor is lowered many notches to suit local taste buds. Mainlander Chinese prefer their soup a dark red sea of chilli oil. Still the recipe here uses more than 30 different types of spices!
The chicken in hua-tiao wine is no slouch either. This is a robust soup with clear chicken and wine flavours and is not easy to find in restaurants. Because of the vast quantities of wine and ginger, it is commonly used as a "confinement" food, i.e. food for mothers who have just delivered their babies. The Chinese believe that childbirth causes a lot of "wind" in the body which is bad, because wind can cause health problems like arthritis and rheumatism. Confinement food would contain those ingredients like wine and ginger as these are believed to help expel wind. Although none of us have given birth recently, we still enjoyed the tasty goodness of this soup.
To accompany a hot pot, the ingredients have to be as fresh and of as good quality as possible, since they are handled as little as possible (no marinading etc) and cooked briefly and simply. Here as usual, the meats, vegetables and other ingredients are impeccable. The sotong(octopus) balls and fish raviolis are the best I've tried in Singapore- and I've been around. And who knew that luncheon meat would taste soooo good with mala soup? The oily meatiness is the perfect sponge to complement the complexity of mala, and although I hardly eat luncheon meat at home, I never miss having it here.
And it does not stop here. Andrew is constantly testing and innovating, and eating here is never boring. Today we had 5 types of appetisers: Aspic luncheon meat, Pork Belly with Garlic Sauce, Chilled Beef Shin, Chicken rolled with Century Egg and Mala fried pork..... I am in love with the Pork Belly, so meltingly tender and tasty. There was also a bowl of dumplings in chilli oil to pass around, reminding me so much of those dumplings we queued up for ages to buy at Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai.
And there was even more goodies midway through the meal. So far, I've been good, and controlling my carbo intake, only nibbling on some grains of rice. Then the servers came round bearing plates of fried man-tous (buns, like char-siew bun without char-siew) which when dipped into some condensed milk is one of the most unlikely yet marvelous foods on earth.
I have forgotten about those...... I had one piece, and thought the danger was over....but no, uh uh, not yet anyway. Andrew had come up with a new snack, a sweet nian gao (sticky rice cake) stuffed with red bean paste and dusted with sesame seeds. His version was just about perfect, with a toothsome texture and a subtly sweet paste, without that cloying fake osmanthus smell that many places use as flavourings. These little babies killed my resolution completely, and I ended up eating 4 pieces!!
And here is the picture of mala evangelist Andrew Wong. Cheers!
Road Side Stall Hot Pot Restaurant
31 Marina Park (Marina South) #01-04/02-04 Planet Marina (Car Park A)
Tel : 6220 0178
Bonus picture: What the staff had for dinner: Mala stir fried pork I think. Looks appetising even to a non-mala fan.