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China's 'ma la xiang guo' adds some spice to dinner

Dry pot is an increasingly popular alternative to hot pot.
Dry pot is an increasingly popular alternative to hot pot.
Alan Guo

Dry Pot

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BEIJING, CHINA - Hot pot is dead; long-live dry pot. Oh, sure, you can still find at least three or four hot pot restaurants on any given Beijing block and our children's grandchildren will know the steam-room sweat of eating in them. However, like the Korean BBQ craze of 2002-2005, Beijing's hot pot fever has finally broken. The new king of group dining is dry pot, known in Mandarin as malaxiangguo.

Dry pot is the kinder, tastier relative of hot pot, possessed with all of its cousin's benefi ts but none of its drawbacks. And hot pot certainly has drawbacks. All of those lovely ingredients: lamb, fi sh balls, lotus root and others, lose most, if not all, of their flavor to the boiling water, especially if said water has been rendered volcanic with two fistfuls of chili peppers. Where is the foreigner's triumph in daring to eat calf's blood when it's got the same rubbery texture as the tofu and has been dipped in sesame sauce to boot?

Hot pot logistics, fun at fi rst, become tiresome to the initiated. Are those the mushrooms that you've had simmering for the past 10 minutes, or the ones the guy opposite just threw in? Should you scrape the rest of those razor-thin beef slices into the boiling broth, or will they turn rubbery from neglect? Where the heck is that lump of bone marrow that breached just a few moments ago? Oh no! Are those kuaizi (chopsticks) in your mouth the ones that you were shoveling the raw meat with? Hot pot dinners are wars of attrition, leaving the table a sodden mess, clothes spattered with gobs of sesame sauce and steam burns on tired fingers.

Enter dry pot. Say goodbye to the broth, a bubbling distraction at best, a safety hazard at least. And dry pot doesn't throw the baby out with the bath water. All of those spices and herbs that give hot pot broth its savory aroma are present in dry pot, alive and undiluted. You'll fi nd familiar garlic, ginger and scallions, along with proprietary blends of more exotic seasonings, the exact names and proportions of which are guarded as closely as State secrets. When queried for the magic recipe, the manager at dry pot restaurant Chuanchengyuan replies with a polite Chinese chuckle that means, "What an uncouth thing to ask!"

The manager will admit that there are 47 herbs and spices in the house blend, balanced as thoughtfully as a TCM doctor's Rx, in this case a prescription for palate-pleasing. All of those far-out ingredients that made ordering at the hot pot joint so much fun: tofu skins, shrimp balls and frog's legs, are all waiting at the house of dry pot as well, only now, they'll get the full benefit of the seasonings – dusted, tossed and simmered. If you haven't yet tried dry pot and can't envisage the principle at work, consider a salami and cheese sandwich. You can't eat the bread, meat and cheese separately without sacrificing the synergy of such well-matched ingredients, especially without the obligatory coating of mayo and mustard that brings them all together.

That's the principle at work behind dry pot. Tender chicken, fi rm yet yielding potato and yam slices, pork loin and juicy veggies, all keep their distinct fl avor while getting along together marvelously. Unlike many hot pot places, which take the "rest" out of "restaurant," in dry pot, the cooking has been done for you. Everything is simmered to perfection in the kitchen, then brought to your table, giving o an aroma to make your mouth water like a St. Bernard outside a butcher shop.

As with hot pot, at dry pot expect to be asked rhetorically, "Chi la de ma?" or "Would you like it spicy?" The question is not whether or not chili peppers will mount the dry pot like wrinkled red conquerors, but to what degree. My advice is to choose the menu option with just one pepper pictured, at most two and try not to stare at the chili rising out of the dry pot on the adjoining table. The overall flavor will not overwhelm, with just a little spice adding the obligatory bite to an otherwise unique mélange of tangy, salty, pungent and aromatic flavors.