There is literally nothing like a bowl of steaming má là tang (麻辣烫) when Shanghai’s wet, cold winter sets in. In English, it translates to “mouth-numbing spicy soup,” and if that weren’t indication enough that it will get your sinuses going, then the fire-engine-red broth certainly is.
Originally a meal for poor travelers and laborers in Sichuan province, má là tang has hit it big in cities throughout China as a cheap, filling meal that warms you up from the inside out. In Shanghai, there are more má là tang restaurants than you can shake a stick at, but one rises head and shoulders above the rest: Chuan Chuan Xiang Ma La Tang.
Enter any má là tang joint and you’ll be greeted by a giant refrigerator that usually stretches across a back wall and comes stuffed full of meat products. Along the neighboring wall are fresh vegetables, dried noodles and an assortment of tofu products. Snap up one of the plastic baskets and start to peruse the goods – it’s like grocery shopping for the meal, only diners don’t have to deal with the cooking or clean-up.
When we’re feeling bold, we try the frozen pig’s blood or the pink sausage wrapped in an unidentifiable orange substance. But we usually stock our baskets with enoki mushrooms, sliced carrots, cauliflower florets, baby bok choy, hard-boiled quail eggs, bean sprouts, ramen noodles, back bacon and the occasional Chinese sausage. We then hand our baskets over to the official counter, who tallies up the bill based on our selection (prices for vegetables usually range from RMB 0.5-1, while meat is RMB 1-2) and asks us if we want cilantro on top. The answer is always yes.
From there, you get a number as the contents of your basket are de-skewered and dropped into a metal mesh container to keep your ingredients separate from all the others marinating in the bubbling vat of spicy soup. When the veggies are al dente and the meat cooked through, the ingredients are pulled out and dumped in a plastic bowl, where a heaping scoop of red chili pepper flakes will be added to really put the tongue-tingling over the top. The touch that separates Chuan Chuan Ma La Tang from the more average má là tang vendors is a generous squirt of thinned peanut sauce.
The flavoring doesn’t end there. Once our bowl hits the table, it’s time for a little DIY taste-tweaking. Chopped garlic adds medicinal properties and depth to the soup, while a squirt of vinegar cuts the heat and grease. And for the very brave of taste bud, there is also a metal bowl of chili flakes to add points to the soup’s ranking on the Scoville scale.