Food can sometimes be like that - oftentimes because of social media hyping up some long existing dish out of obscurity to being an instagram or tiktok darling. Well, I’m going to call out a potential darkhorse dish which I hope will get it’s time on the podium soon - Mala Dry Pot.
Now, you may be thinking “What the heck is that, Phil?” - and I wouldn’t judge you. That’s because it seems to be a relatively niche dish at least here along the East Coast of the USA. I’ve only found it in 2 restaurants I’ve been to to date, and if you know how much I enjoy going to restaurants big and small, you know this dish must be a relatively rare thing. But I’ll let you in on a hint of what it is - you’ve probably heard of Sichuan Hot Pot, right? Those bubbling cauldrons of spicy, red-tinged and oil slicked broth where people are dunking in thin slices of meat, seafood, and vegetables and dipping them in all types of sauces? Well Mala Dry Pot is Hot Pot’s more assertive, bolder cousin - you know, the one that has a motorbike, enjoys wearing a leather jacket with a sherpa collar, and will go up to anyone at a bar and chat them up? That guy.
Anywho - Mala Dry Pot is a truly superior dish not only because it’s arguably event tastier than the more known Mala Hot Pot, but also because it’s easier to make and requires much less clean up and prep. If you’re a fan of spicy, savory food that will make you come back craving more, this one’s for you.
Let’s dive in.
So you may be thinking "why is this dish a dark horse?" Well, aside from being relatively not well known at least in most parts of the USA, it has all the makings of a hype worthy dish. It’s full of bold flavor, it's infinitely customizable, it's very photogenic, and it’s made to be shared by a group - so you know it will be perfect for TikTokers to monologue over in a video. Once it starts gaining visibility as hot pot has, I expect it to enter the cultural zeitgeist in no time.
So what is Mala Dry Pot? To sum it up, it’s a spicy, savory, and very saucy stir fry at its heart. The “dry” of Mala Dry Pot comes from the fact that it’s not served in or with a full pot of broth like it’s cousin Sihuan hot pot is. While the mix of spices and flavors can vary, my preference, and how I’ve seen dry pot usually prepared, is choosing, prepping, and pre-cooking a mix of vegetables and proteins and quickly stir frying it with a sauce featuring a lively mix of spices, aromatics, soy and chili sauces, and fresh herbs to create a extremely fragrant, spicy, and tingly dish.
The core flavors of Mala dishes - szechuan peppercorn, chilis, cumin, star anise, and more feature right up front in Mala Dry Pot. These provide the robust base flavors while fresh herbs and vegetables act as the foil to bring brightness and balance. Honestly, it’s hard to describe in words, so please trust me when I say it’s a flavor I sometimes dream about.
Now that I’ve hopefully sold you on giving this dish a try, there are a few steps in the lead up and prep for making dry pot. Here’s a few tips to start:
Balance flavor and texture when picking your protein and vegetables - Remember, we eat with all our senses, so when picking what meat and proteins you want to include, get a variety of colors, textures, and flavors to really make it your own. I recommend selecting 2-3 proteins and at least 2-3 core vegetables for dry pot - that way you can enjoy mixing and matching bites.
- Example Proteins:
- Thinly sliced steak (use more tender cuts like sirloin or filet)
- Sliced chicken
- Fried tofu (Unfried tofu may break apart)
- Fish cakes or balls
- Example Vegetables:
- Bok choy
- Enoki or sliced shiitake mushrooms
- Chinese broccoli
- Bean sprouts
- Bamboo shoots
- Napa cabbage
- Lotus root
- Other Ideas:
- Mini dumplings or wontons
- Rice cakes
- Rice noodles
Pre-Cutting and Cooking your Ingredients - This is a critical step in making mala dry pot and helps make sure things go smoothly once you get to the final stages of cooking.
- Make sure your pieces are all cut into large but bite-sized pieces - You don’t need something that is very small here. Cut your proteins and veg into pieces that are hearty, without making you have to unhinge your jaw
- Cook ingredients individually and have them set aside at the ready to go - The method you use here can vary, but I tend to like to brown and stir fry meats and hearty vegetables like carrots in oil until just cooked on the outside, and blanche leafy vegetables like bok choy until crisp-tender in a pot of salted boiling water. It’s ok if they cool down while you prep the other ingredients, you will heat them up again in the final stir fry with the sauce.
- Measure out your spices and sauces ahead of time - At the very end of cooking, you will be making the sauce for your dry pot and it will come together relatively quickly, so you don’t want to be fumbling around in the depths of your spice cabinet looking for cumin or bay leaves while your other spices are starting to burn. Pre-measure your spices and put them into a small dish and do the same with your liquid sauces. You can always adjust more later if you want more heat or salt or sugar. Also feel free to adjust your level of spice - add or reduce the amount of chili to your taste buds - no judgment here.
- Don’t skip on the fresh herbs - What takes Mala Dry Pot from A-Tier to S-Tier is the final topping of fresh herbs. Cilantro is traditional and preferred here, but fresh green onion is also wonderful and thai basil could also be a fun twist.
Have Lots of Rice - Make more than you think you will need - I’m just going to leave it at that.
Alright - well you’ve heard enough from me - here’s my recipe for a Mala Dry Pot. Again, my choice of meats and vegetables were purely based on what I was craving at the time, but I encourage you to create your own mix.
- 1/2 Can of Spam, sliced into bite-sized pieces
- 10-12 oz. Steak, sirloin or strip recommended, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 Large carrot, sliced thin into bite sized pieces
- 5-6 Napa cabbage leaves, cut into large pieces
- 2-3 Shanghai or Baby Bok Choy - Cut into fourths, leaving the base attached
- 1 Package sliced shiitake mushrooms - About 4 Oz (or substitute enoki mushrooms)
- 3-4 Cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1-inch Piece of ginger, roughly chopped
- Handful of Cilantro, roughly chopped
- 1 tsp Sesame seeds
- Vegetable Oil
Sauce and Spices:
- 2 tsp Ground cumin
- 1 tsp Five spice
- 1-2 tsp Szechuan peppercorns, crushed between your fingertips until fragrant
- 1/2 - 3/4 tsp Szechuan or red pepper flakes
- 2 Bay leaves
- 2 Whole star anise
- 1 Tbl Light Soy Sauce
- 1 Tsp Dark Soy Sauce
- 1 Tbl White sugar
- 1 tsp Chinese black vinegar (substitute balsamic if needed)
- 1 tsp Shaoxing cooking wine (Substitute dry sherry if needed)
- 2 tsp. Spicy Chili Crisp
- 1 generous tsp Chili Bean Sauce (AKA Touban Jian or Doubanjiang)
- Vegetable Oil
- Prepare your meats and vegetables by slicing them into large, bite-sized pieces. Set aside until ready to cook
- Combine your dry spices on a small plate or bowl, and combine your sauces except for the chili-bean paste in a separate bowl. Set aside until ready to cook
- In a large pan, heat up a thin layer of oil and brown your proteins until just cooked and taking on brown color on the outside - set aside
- Cook your firm vegetables, like carrots, in the same pan until just starting to get tender, about 2-3 minutes - set aside
- Cook your mushrooms until they have released their liquids and are soft - about 3-5 minutes - set aside
- In a large pot of boiling salted water, quickly blanche your napa cabbage and bok choy for 1-2 minutes until cooked but still crisp - remove from the water and set aside
- Once all main proteins and vegetables are prepared, return the large pan over medium-low heat. Add about 3 tablespoons of oil to the pan and add the dry spices, garlic, and ginger. Stir until spices are fragrant - about 1 minute.
- Add the chili bean paste and stir into the oil mixture - cook 1-minute more until fragrant
- Add the remaining sauce ingredients, raise the heat to medium, and bring to a boil
- Turn heat to medium-high and add all the prepped proteins and vegetables back into the pan. Stir to coat all the ingredients in the sauce and let the sauce start to thicken and glaze everything - 2-3 minutes. Taste and adjust the dish as needed with salt, sugar, or chili to taste. If the sauce is too loose, you can thicken it with a cornstarch slurry.
- Remove the pan from the heat and dish onto a large serving dish or platter - sprinkle generously with fresh chopped cilantro and a sprinkle of sesame seeds
- Serve family style with lots of rice and enjoy
Let me know if you enjoyed trying this out in the comments below. Cheers!