Here is a problem expats new to China — or new to a Chinese city — routinely face. Where do you eat when you are in a hurry and only want a quick bite? If you live in a medium-sized city like Changzhou, the answer is simple: McDonalds, Burger King, or KFC. But really, that is a diet of unhealthy grease and carbs, and the more you eat it, the more sick of it you become. The novelty of a Big Mac or a Whopper with Cheese in China wears off the longer you live here. Fried Chicken is scrumptious, but eat too much of it every week, and you will loathe that too. And what if you are a vegetarian? A vegan? You feel royally screwed with few options
It doesn’t have to be that way. One of my best friends recently showed me an alternative, and it has quickly become a staple of my eating-out diet. It’s called mala tang (麻辣烫). Literally, it means “hot and numbing soup.” When it comes to Chinese food, this is even more friendly to Chinese-language illiterates than picture menus. Why? There is no menu, at all.
You walk into the place, grab a bowl, and you grab tongs. There is a buffet of meat, raw vegetables, and dumplings to choose from. My first choices are usually cabbage. For me, soup always has to have some sort cabbage in it. I blame my European ancestry for that. From there, it depends on my mood. Today, I had cabbage, mushrooms, quail eggs, and dumplings with pork centers. They other day? A profound fish theme–but with cabbage!. Every time you visit one of these places, the flavor of your soup changes based on your ingredient selections. This means that these places take much longer to become boring than KFC will be within two weeks.
Then, you grab a bottled drink and hand your bowl to a cashier. He or she weighs it, charges you money, and then hands your bowl it to the cook. You go to your table and wait. And then? Five to ten minutes later, your soup is brought to you. Your carefully selected ingredients are sitting in a spicy broth, ready to eat. The most I have paid for this sort of meal has been 30 RMB, but my go to lama tang joint is in Xinbei Wanda Plaza. It is bound to be more expensive the the mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall lama tang restaurants that are all over Changzhou and China in general.