So you're down with pho, you love laksa, and you can tonkotsu ramen with the best of them? If you’re ready for Sydney’s next big soup thing, it's malatang. This street food-style hot pot originated in South-Western China (Sichuan) but can now be found across the whole country.
The place to try malatang is Yang Guo Fu Ma La Tang. It’s one of four outlets headed up by Northern Chinese, from the city of Harbin. In the restaurant’s name, Yang Guo is a euphemistic way of referring to Northern China, and Fu means lucky. The soup, malatang, makes up the rest of the restaurant's name, and it's the only dish they make. The soup's name is a combination of two Chinese characters meaning numbing (for the effect of the Sichuan peppercorns) and spicy (for the resulting sensation in your mouth).
The restaurant is rammed and noisy when we arrive. You’ll find it light on instructions - eschewing menus, signage or any other indications about how you order food. Act like you know what you're doing and right near the entry collect a big bowl and tongs. Your resulting soup will be big enough to share, so you’ll only need to take one bowl between two (or even three) of you.
Add items to your bowl from the counters of ingredients. In the first counter the ingredients range from greens (they shrink, so take more than you think you need), to vegetables like broccoli, lotus root, bean sprouts and exotic mushrooms (the king brown are great). Load up on carbohydrates, from multiple types of noodles to bean curd sheets, because they will soak up more of the delicious soup.
In the second counter, you'll find more types of sticks, balls and fishcakes than you’ll be able to identify. Add whatever takes your fancy, including lovely thin slices of pork and beef. Don’t sweat not knowing exactly what everything is. Nothing we chose tasted bad in the soup, and we chose widely.
Take your bowl to the counter, and pay for it by weight at the rate of $24/kilo. Our bowl fed three people and came in just under twenty bucks. You don't pay for the soup, which is based on a complex beef stock, cooked with mala sauce of Sichuan peppercorns, dry red chilli peppers and a range of aromatic spices including clove, star anise, black cardamom and ginger.
Depending on how busy they are, your bowl will take anywhere between ten and twenty minutes. When it’s ready they’ll announce your number (in both English and Chinese) on the microphone at mood-shattering volume. When you collect your soup you’ll be offered a range of add-on sauces. The garlic paste made from milled garlic and water is what makes the soup wonderfully creamy. There’s also roasted sesame paste, sugar, black vinegar and chilli. We accept everything on offer, including chilli, and regret nothing. Grab some take-away bowls to aid sharing, and don't spend your meal trying to fairly distribute three of each thing into each person’s bowl. Give up and treat it like fondue – once it has fallen into the pot, it belongs to whomever grabs it.
Even as first timers, our choose-your-own-adventure malatang was wonderfully rich, spicy and complex. The liquid was even more addictive than coconut-rich laksa, and the wide variety of extras kept my mouth texturally entertained. As a social meal, it was fun competitively fishing for mystery balls, sticks, crab claws and other surprises.
For those worried about the heat level, the initial burn is very quickly moderated by the numbing effects of Sichuan peppercorns. There's water available, but in the words of Lyndey Milan: “chilli is not water soluble”, so drinking it will not ease any malatang-induced burn. That’s a good argument for beer if ever I heard one, but despite Harbin having a big beer drinking culture, this restaurant doesn’t sell any! However they didn’t seem to mind us nipping down the road to Red Bottle for a couple of cans of Pirate Life, and our malatang was all the better for us having done so.
NOTE: For a smooth introduction to malatang with a Chinese-speaking guide, visit it as part of Through Asia. Run by social enterprise, Taste Food Tours, this guided food tour of Haymarket will run on the 7, 12, 19 and 28 October. Over the course of three hours, it will introduce you to some of the best Asian inspired food this city has to offer, for $79 per person.
Yang Guo Fu Ma La Tang
Shop G.01, 345B-353 Sussex Street (corner of Sussex & Liverpool Streets), Sydney
Ph: none provided