We’ve been fascinated by dry pot (ma la xiang guo) since discovering it in Flushing last year, probably a decade after it had risen to match the popularity of hot pot in Beijing.
This streamlined hot pot is a wok stir-fry of all your favorite hot pot ingredients, served in a large, half-empty bowl, as if the soup had evaporated. Although originally dry pots were also presented on a tableside cooktop, many places, especially those in Flushing’s mall food courts, just serve your meal in a big wooden or metal bowl, expecting that you will eat it quickly and move on. Instead of the two hours that can be spent lingering over a hot pot, dry pot can be wolfed down in a fraction of that time.
A good spot to get a taste for dry pot is the New World Mall food court, one of several Chinese food courts in Flushing. It hosts dozens of stalls, representing a cross-section of popular Chinese snack and lunches. The dry-pot places display all of their ingredients behind glass. The thinly sliced beef, uniform broccoli florets and stacked napa cabbage leaves remind us of a favorite mall food growing up: Mongolian BBQ. Missing were the canned pineapple tidbits and slices of water chestnut; instead lotus root, liver, frozen blocks of squid and thick cuts of heavily processed ham are on offer.
Where dry pot is similar to hot pot is in its use of spices. The aromas developed from the wok mimic those of a two-hour hot-pot session, but delivered in minutes. The flavors are based on the numbing and spicy ma la combination of Sichuan peppercorns and chilies.
At the New World Mall there are two dry pot stalls. The standard-bearing chain LaoMa Mala Tang sits between a Langzhou noodle place and a bubble tea stall manned by teenagers. At the other end of the court, there’s Tianfu Spicy Wok, a smaller, more discrete stall wedged between dumplings and Chongqing noodles. The bowls are a little cheaper and more skillfully stir-fried at Tianfu, but LaoMa offers more toppings, including flounder fillets, our personal favorite, and it is, crucially, a bit heavier handed with the Sichuan peppercorns, whose tingle we crave. At Tianfu Spicy Wok, you pay a $5 deposit for your bowl, and at LaoMa Mala Tang they only give you one serving of rice unless you get a bowl that costs $25 or more.
At both spots, the drill is the same: customers point to what they want and then everything is put in a bowl and unceremoniously weighed to determine cost before being sent back to the kitchen for a quick stir fry. Both stalls are also usually busy, even amongst dozens of tempting alternatives.
For special nights, when we want to sit down and have a few beers with our dry pot (drinking alcohol is prohibited at the New World mall food court, a rule regularly ignored by locals with paper-bag-covered flasks), we head down to Good Harvest. This Chinese chain specializes in seafood dry pots and tropical fruit “charpati,” which bear more resemblance to Indian paratha than chapati. There are over 50 locations in China and now two in New York. When the Flushing location opened, there were lines around the block for few weeks during dinner.
Good Harvest is a very different dry pot experience from that in the mall. Instead of selecting each bowl topping, you choose a fish – or two, in a split pot – to be fried with chili and Sichuan pepper. Each sea creature, from flounder to live king crab (dispatched to order), comes with a selection of vegetables to complement it, including cauliflower, bamboo, sweet potato and knots of seaweed.
Good Harvest also offers customers a chance to compare dry and conventional hot pots with its set meals. After you eat your dry pot, a server sets up a pork bone hot pot to simmer on an induction cooktop at the table’s center. Tofu, mushrooms, cabbage, beef, skewered shrimp are among the many additions set out for you to cook yourself in the rich, milky broth.
One night at Good Harvest we asked Xudong Shi, a 19-year-old student from Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, who had only been in the United States for a month, which he preferred. He told us that he thought dry pot was a bit boring. He showed us pictures of a dry pot he had in China last year. The bowl was piled with bisected duck heads and dried chilies. He shrugged, unimpressed, and described how important soup was to any meal, and how much he loved the concentrated, complex tastes at the bottom of the pot, at the end of a marathon meal with friends.
We offered Shi our perceived advantages of dry pot over the traditional hot pot, but he held firm. We pointed to the rich aromatic and evenly cooked ingredients. He pointed out that all the flavors were preserved better in the broth than in aromas. We noted that hot pot is complicated to set up; you need an induction burner, cooking time, sauce plates and little bowls for everyone. He didn’t see the problem. He said people back home have all that equipment and regularly make hot pot at home. The hot pot burner is to the Chinese like a washing machine to Americans, he explained.
We told him that you couldn’t take a hot pot meal to go in your car. He didn’t understand why anyone would ever eat like this.
“You don’t always have time for a three-hour sit down meal.”
“Because we’re too busy in America.”
Shi seemed genuinely surprised to hear that that would prevent anyone from sitting down to hot pot once a week. He thought it was a real shame.
This feature was originally published on April 25, 2017.