I have often passed malatang restaurants in the city and looked curiously in at the refrigerated stations packed with fresh vegetables and seafood, meats and dumplings, but today I am walking in and trying malatang! We are having lunch at the newly opened Zhanglian Malatang in Woden.
What is malatang, you ask? It’s a convenient alternative to traditional hotpot – a speedy hotpot for one! This street food originated in the Sichuan region of China and is growing in popularity here in Australia. Think Sichuan, think spicy and flavoursome, think red chilli oil, think numb lips!
The ‘mala’ in malatang is the chilli and peppercorn-heavy mala sauce, renowned for the numbing effect it can inflict on your tongue and lips – a spice combination so strong that it leaves your lips humming from the heat and even your nose cries.
Don’t worry. If this terrifies you, rest assured you can still enjoy a big bowl of brothy deliciousness full of all the ingredients you have chosen to be cooked in there. The mala soup base is just one of four soup options available: mushroom, tomato and tom yum soups are also available. And if soup doesn’t float your culinary boat, you can opt for a stir fry option.
We grab our oversized bowls from the fridge and start the fun selection process of what to have in our soup. It feels like every exotic green is there, along with mushrooms and black fungus. Fresh seafood, beef tripe, fish balls and every type of meatball, fish cakes, rice cakes, and all manner of noodles gleam enticingly.
I select bok choy, lotus root, dried fried tofu, large puffy porous tofu chunks, and a large deep-fried dough stick, which I have always wanted to try. I also pop in some prawn dumplings, slivers of lamb and flat rice noodles.
We take our bowls up, get weighed for pricing, and choose our soup base.
I chicken out and go with mushroom soup. Our bowls are taken to the kitchen to cook, and we return to our seats with buzzers.
The food is ready very quickly, which will appeal to anyone looking for a speedy work lunch option.
We select add- ons from the condiment station, lots of chilli for my friend and a bowl of sesame sauce.
I enjoy the mushroom soup, but when owner Boya Zheng comes over with a small bowl of the original mala bone broth, I really wish I had been braver and tried it. It is not too spicy; rather, it is fragrant and layered and only one of those layers is a touch of spicy heat. The tender prawn dumplings are salty bursts of yum. The filmy strands of lamb still bring their unique heady flavour to the bowl.
I especially enjoy the texture of the dried fried tofu that has softened and spread its spongy tendrils. The porous puffs of tofu and the fried tofu are perfect vehicles to absorb the soup’s flavours.
The dough stick is deep fried and a scrumptious addition. But eat it early in your lunch. It dissolves into the soup if you leave it until the end.
The lotus roots bring a prettiness to my bowl, but they are a starchy vegetable that don’t add a lot of taste.
The surprise hero here is a condiment dish, the sesame sauce. Smooth, garlicky, nutty and slightly sweet, I put loads of it into my bowl. Next time, I will take a bucket of it.
Boya says that they use high-quality beef bones for the soup base. Carefully selected ingredients go into the nutritious and healthy soup bases, creating spicy, fragrant soups that are not overly greasy. She says the appeal of this food is the DIY aspect.
The Zhangliang Malatang brand was established in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, in 2008. After 15 years of brand management, it now has nearly 6000 stores in over 1000 cities and counties around the world. It is well-known and loved, and we are lucky to have several in Canberra.
Zhangliang Malatang is located at Corinna Street, Westfield Woden. It is open every day, from 11 am to 9 pm. Visit the Westfield site to find out more.
Original Article published by Michelle Taylor on Riotact.