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Ma la tang : the numbing, spicy, super-hot dish – Enshi, Hubei Province




Mala Tang Hotpot

Mala Tang Hotpot

Má là tang (麻辣烫), meaning numbing spicy super-hot blanched, is the generic name for a variety of hotpots. In restaurants, these can be individual and stand on the table, or designed for groups and built into the table.

In street food carts, some have an array of fresh ingredients ready to dunk into boiling broth. Others are pre-cooked and ready for re-heating.

Enshi Street Food Vendors

Enshi Street Food Vendors

The supposedly worst kind of ma la tang has the ingredients left to stew in the broth for hours (or probably even days). This extended cooking limits the potential for illness (which is helpful during a road-trip), but at the same time masks the cheapest of ingredients.

Having never experienced it, I wanted to try the last, worst kind.

Ma La Tang

MaLa Tang hotpot

What to choose?

We sat on the tiny fluorescent plastic stools so popular in Asia and pointed at the items we wanted. I say we, but H decided at this point that it looked too bad to eat, so went to another stall for a bowl of fatty pig intestines. When tofu and mystery sausage are considered less savoury than pig intestines I probably should have followed, but decided to give the ma la tang a go.

Examining the various items boiling away on the cart it was clear they were very, very low quality. Few looked like an actual piece of meat. Instead it was all pulped and shaped into balls, tubes and cubes. These were threaded onto skewers, usually in threes.

I made an uninformed selection, which the vendor placed into a small cardboard tub and doused with sesame seeds and a fiery red sauce.

Back at the table H was digging into a bowl of freshly made noodles and looked at my pot with disdain. I shrugged and tucked in.

The fishy discs were disconcertingly spongey, but the sausages and meat balls had a pleasant enough texture. The red chili sauce masked the flavours well, but not enough to hide quite how grim the meat was. The vendor smiled and I nodded back.

Chongqing Hotpot

The much more refined Chongqing Hotpot

Guests for dinner

We were the only customers seated at the four tables. The next customer sat down at our table. His jacket was a bit dishevelled, as was his hair, but it was the eyes that bothered me – they were taken up by huge black pupils. He was clearly on drugs of some sort, but had his head down and was busy eating. Halfway through he looked up at me and went back to eating. This being a very untouristy town it took him a while, but to us watching (along with the vendors) we could all tell the moment when he realised there was a foreigner sat opposite him. Having been mumbling unintelligibly whilst eating he came out with his first recognisable word: ‘waiguoren!’,foreigner!

He then looked up and just stared at me, quietly repeating ‘waiguoren, waiguoren’.

The vendor seemed to know him and put a calming hand on his shoulder, which had the opposite effect – he jumped up and ran away into the street, straight into the path of a taxi that fortunately screeched to a halt.

The driver got out and the guy got in. The driver got back in and seemingly threw the guy out. Lots of banging and shouting at each other later they went their separate ways into the rain.

At this point, a lady who identified herself as the guys helper came over and paid for his meal, before walking off in the opposite direction to which he’d headed. Not the most helpful helper.

Confused we made our way back to the hotel, stopping briefly to pick up a baked sweet potato. Sold everywhere and served Without any spice or flavourings, the simple potato was a far more satisfying meal.





Since leaving London in 2006 I’ve travelled, worked, volunteered and lived in over 90 countries. Highlights so far would be driving along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, a complete circuit of South America and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. I’m currently back in Beijing, as a base to visit more of Asia and attempt to learn Mandarin.


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