Malatang Isn’t Just Málà? The Irreconcilable Difference of Northern and Southern Taste Buds
Malatang, from its very origination, was cooked in a way where boat trackers fetched herbs along the riverbank of Yangtze river and boiled them in a jar on fire built from some tree branches. Since boat trackers worked in a damp and hot weather, they often added Sichuan peppercorn and ginger into the broth in order not only to eliminate dampness from their bodies but also to boost the flavors.
As the making of Malatang evolved over time, different preparation styles emerged in various places. Malatang’s adaptability allowed people to localize it into regionally preferred flavors such as, sesame paste was added in Beijing; Chinese herbal medicine or pig bone broth was added in Shanghai; pickled chili was added by some vendors in Qingdao.
Generally, various localization of Malatang all over China grew into two major genre: the sesame paste genre in Northern China and the málà (numbing and tingling) genre in Southern China. The sesame-paste-added Malatang offered consumers a nutty, rich, and slightly bitter flavor similar to natural peanut butter whereas the málà genre stayed true to its original Sichuan savor. The Southerners usually refer to it as “MaoCai” (冒菜) whereas the Northerners keep the name of MáLà despite that it is neither Má(numbing) or Là(spicy).
Apart from adjustments made in flavor, the form of cooking a Malatang also diversified over time. There are in total five ways of offering a Malatang: by-weight, casserole Malatang, in-a-bowl Malatang, Hot-pot Malatang, and skewers Malatang. If diners are looking for a sit-down gathering with friends and family, they’d go for either the casserole style, the Hot-pot style or the skewers style for a family-dining experience. If diners prefer some quality time on their own, they’d most likely go for by-weight or in-a-bowl style where they could customize their own ingredients and easily take the Malatang to go if they are on-the-go.
Despite that the majority of the Malatang joints still remain individual, or even as street vendors, a few savvy restaurateurs discovered the potential of turning individual Malatang joints into chain restaurants started in the late 90s. The largest Malatang chain in China are Yangguofu(杨国福) Malatang and Zhangliang(张亮) Malatang. The two owners both deemed the dish as something that would definitely go viral and both started their business in the Northeastern China. According to data in 2016, in Beijing alone, there were 332 Yangguofu Malatang stores and 540 Zhangliang Malatang stores. Although the dish was said to originate from Sichuan province, there were not as many Malatang vendors as there were in the Northeast.