THERE are many versions of hot pot in China but to me the ultimate expression is spicy hot pot, better know as mala hot pot. To many of my international friends in China eating mala hot pot qualifies as extreme eating but for me it’s become a culinary essential.
Much more than a dish, mala hot pot is an exhilarating communal experience that uniquely challenges your senses. Mala hot pot is also a bonding experience and an essential rite of passage for lovers of spicy foods. While other styles of Chinese hot pots date back to the earliest Chinese civilization, mala is a more modern rendition of this eating tradition.
The first spicy hot pots started in and around the city of Chongqing at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) nearly 400 years ago. When it was time to eat, traders and boatmen along the great Yangtze River would gather outside around large wood, charcoal or coal fired pots.
They would throw in liberal amounts of Sichuan peppercorns and chili peppers and add buffalo visceral or any other meat and innards they might come across.
By the early 20th century, this rather rough outside culinary experience moved indoors into restaurants and become more refined. Today, it’s a treat that can be enjoyed all over China and in many parts of Asia.
A good mala hot pot starts with the soup. The finest mala restaurants boil beef bones and other parts of the cow in large caldrons for hours or even days until the right flavor intensity and consistency is achieved. Then liberal amounts of Sichuan peppercorns, red chilies and chili oil are added and the soup is ready for the table. Essential ingredients to the base soup include duck blood and tofu.
Personally, the highlight of the mala experience is the innards, most notably pig’s intestines and beef tripe. Beef or other meat slices as well as beef or pork tendons are also popular. Dumplings, cabbage, noodles and a plethora of other additives are common in modern pots. But all this spicy deliciousness begs the important question of what to drink with mala?
There are some connoisseurs who believe wines don’t pair well with spicy foods. Their easy yet unimaginative solution is beer. I disagree with these wine naysayers. Picking beer to accompany mala hot pots is a poor compromise as beer even at its very best is merely a neutral companion to spicy foods and never an embellisher as is the case with the appropriate wine. Essentially these beer advocates have a flawed argument.
Traditional propagators of the belief that spicy foods cannot be paired with wines were principally people from northern Europe who had little appreciation or knowledge of spicy foods. Likewise many of my friends in Guangzhou, Hong Kong and along the east coast of China don’t favor highly spiced dishes as their delicate palates become easily overwhelmed when fire meets the tongue. However, food lovers more conditioned to spicy foods are still able to eat spicy food along with the proper wine. Science is also on their side.
Pepper corns and chilies
A typical mala hot pot has many ingredients but the two that pose the greatest challenge for wine pairing are Sichuan peppercorns and red chili peppers.
The Sichuan pepper corn is derived from the Zanthoxylum genus and in fact is more closely related to the citrus family than the black or white pepper families. The key numbing sensation these peppers impart on the palate has been likened to the effect of Novocain.
Contrary to the popular conception that they dull the flavors of food, scientific studies indicate that they stimulate the receptors on your tongue and sharpen your ability to differentiate the flavors and textures of foods. In the case of mala, this means that despite the numb feeling in your mouth the natural flavors of the ingredients in the pot are accentuated. Your ability to sense the fruit, acidity and tannins in wines is also heightened.
Now essential to Sichuan cooking, chili peppers didn’t actually arrive to Sichuan until the late 16th century when they were introduced to Asia by Portuguese and Arab spice traders. Despite their relatively late introduction, by the 17th century chili peppers were already popular in Sichuan and several other regional Chinese cuisines. Capsaicin and related chemicals called capsaicinoids give chili peppers their heat. These fiery little creatures bind to the pain receptors on your tongue and mouth sending messages of heat and pain to your brain. Drinking the appropriate chilled wine is a great way to assuage these sensations.
When pairing wines with spicy foods like mala hot pot there are some tried and true rules. First, wines with amble fruitiness tend to be good companions as these fruit qualities provide a flavor contrast to the spiciness. Off-sweet or sweet wines also do well as the sweetness counteracts the spiciness and sooths the palate.
Another solution is pairing spiciness with spiciness by picking white or red wines known for their spicy qualities. In all cases, wines should be well-chilled when served, with sweet whites about 6-8 Celsius, dry whites about 8 Celsius and reds no higher than 15 Celsius. The low temperature of the wines lessens the sensations of heat on the palate.
Avoid oaky or tannic wines as these qualities are accentuated by spicy foods.
Very delicate, old or complex wines should also be eschewed as they are easily overwhelmed by highly spiced foods.
Most mala hot pots in Shanghai are either low to moderate in spiciness and numbness. While still stimulating to the palate, they are not highly spicy and therefore have a wide range of suitable wine partners. White wine styles that pair well include dry and fruity white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Soave and Albarino. Off sweet German Rielsings and Gewurztraminer whites also work well. If you’re a red wine person who particularly savors the beef and cow innards, then I suggest a fruity red with moderate tannins.
Good choices are Italian Amarone, Ausi Shiraz, California Zinfandels or a nice Southern Rhone or Spanish Grenache.
These reds feature juicy fruit flavors, moderate tannins and often sensations of spice. Reds to avoid are structured Cabernet Sauvignons or delicate Burgundies, though more robust New Zealand and Oregon Pinots nicely fit the bill.
Very spicy mala hot pots that feature a high degree of numbness overwhelm many wines. The best solution is a fortified wine. I suggest a semi-sweet to sweet Sherry or Port. These fortified wines feature a flavor intensity and bold character that’s not overwhelmed by spicy foods and they have the requisite sweetness to counteract the heat and numbness of spicy mala hot pot. It’s essential to serve these fortified wines chilled, about 10 Celsius, so sensations of alcohol are mitigated. If fortified wines are not your thing, try young fruity Beaujolais reds.