“Eight or ten s-ranked gems. Are they made of chocolate?” The Gourmet addressed them flatly.
Hua Li’s response was earnest regardless. “If that’s what you want, I can find a way to get it.”
It was then the Gourmet knew he was serious. He looked from the newcomer, then to Lan Jue. For Hua Li to make such a claim, the Jewelry Master must not have been talking nonsense. The very effeminate gentleman before him must indeed be very wealthy.
“Let’s eat,” he said.
Preparation began when he produced a small stove, with a metal alloy plate beneath to ensure it didn’t hurt the table. A covered pot was then placed on top. The fires underneath were lit.
Next, several plates of fresh dishes were brought out before them. Seafood, vegetables and more were arrayed fancily around the stove. None of them bore any special preparation, but for bamboo shoots which impale the thinly sliced pieces. So far, it certainly didn’t appear to be what you’d call a meal.
“This is… hot pot?” Hua Li’s interrogative voice wafted forth, disappointment in his eyes.
“No!” The Gourmet vehemently shook his head. “This is Ma La Tang.” 1
“Ma La Tang?” The depression faded from his face. “You know how to make it? I’ve had it once before, and I still remember how good it tasted! That fresh, spicy taste is enough to have you eating way past what’s appropriate. But I hear it’s almost impossible to have authentic Ma La Tang these days. Most of the required spices have been lost to us, so the result is a relatively bland copy.”
“Bland?” The Gourmet tasted the word and found it unsavory. “You tell me then, how is one supposed to make Ma La Tang?”
Hua Li did not hesitate in the face of the Gourmet’s challenge. “Ma La Tang was a provincial treat from Former Era China. The base itself is the most demanding aspect. You need garlic, ginger, hot peppers, bean paste, black pepper, white pepper and more. As for the specific proportions of each, I’m not sure. Once your base is completed, however, you boil it in a large pot. You then prepare several dishes as you’ve done here, and you can then place them in the boiling base. Once it’s cooked to your liking, pluck it from the pot, smear some sesame paste on it, spice, and you’ve got yourself a delicious treat.”
The Gourmand, after hearing the loquacious explanation, shook his head. “Were I to give you a base in the way you described, we wouldn’t be having a hot spicy meal. It’d be a boiled spicy meal.”
“Let me ask you,” the gourmet continued. “What’s the difference between hot, and boiled.”
Hua Li fell silent, apparently unclear on the question. Lan Jue also looked on in uncertainty. As they did the sound of roiling water reached their ears. The lid of the pot rumbled as steam spat from it’s sides, releasing a savory aroma. The thick mist was heavy with spice and freshness blended together. Just the scent alone raised their body heat, and opened their pores.
The Gourmet stood, and lifted the lid from the pot.
Immediately what was before a faint aroma became a torrent as the steam filled the room. As the smoke cleared, the shifting red soup within the pot appeared before Lan Jue and Hua Li’s eyes. They could just spy the spices rolling around in the boiling broth. As the thick aroma invaded their nostrils, they grew more impatient to try it.
The Gourmet reached down and shut off the stove.
Lan Jue and Hua Li exchanged a glance. They hadn’t yet eaten, they thought. Why urn off the fire?
Under their wondering gaze the Gourmet began to place the morsels of food scattered around in to the steaming pot. He didn’t insert too many, maybe fifteen sticks jutted from the lip of the cauldron.
“The most important distinction between boiling and heated is this. Boiling intends to maintain it’s state – to keep boiling. One takes advantage of the heat to thoroughly cook the food placed within. Generally speaking, this method of cooking requires one to pair it with delicious sauces. Because of the high heat, you can’t let the food sit within for sufficient amounts of time necessary to absorb the flavors. Rather like the boiled mutton they’d often eat in Former Era China. However there later arose several chefs who chose to employ a different method of cooking food. They deigned to heat the food slowly, and as a result the flavors of the broth were able to infuse the food.”
“So what is ‘heat’ here? Heat is actually this; once the soup has been brought to a boil, it’s easier to fill food with it’s flavors as it cools. Thus, the heat allows for a better overall meal as the spices of the broth and the food’s natural flavors combine. And so I shut off the fire because what we want is hot and spicy. Not boiled. True Ma La Tang does not require any sauce for dipping. What you described a moment ago was in fact spicy hotpot. The sad fact is that due to it’s troublesome nature to properly prepare, even Former Era China saw fewer and fewer people partaking. As a result, the broth and preparation you see here is my special secret.”
Hua Li and Lan Jue each nodded in sudden enlightenment from the Gourmet’s lesson. Hua Li was the first to speak up.
“Today was indeed a good day for me to arrive. I’m a lucky guy. It’s no wonder they call you the Gourmet. A well deserved title, and I admire your knowledge. As for meat, could we employ the same method you described to cook it as well?”
The Gourmet nodded in affirmation. “That is so. When creating stews I am constantly turning the fires off and on. This way they retain even more flavor – and as a result are much tastier than other people’s dishes. Always adding flavoring and sauces simply results in one losing the beauty of expertly prepared food.”
“Well I’ve been schooled,” Lan Jue earnestly piped up.
“Beer’s the best drink to pair with Ma La Tang. It isn’t good for the body, but it’s certainly satisfying. Chilled stout, or light beers made from glacier water are best. I’ve prepared both for us today, so you may pick what you like.” He pointed towards the nearby freezer for emphasis.
Hua Li almost didn’t wait for the Gourmet to finish. He clearly didn’t have Lan Jue’s restraint.
The Stout came in a five liter keg. The glacier beer, conversely, was offered in a porcelain jug. Neither of them were something one would see often. Of course for the three of them it wasn’t anything extraordinary.
Lan Jue chose the stout 2 while Hua Li chose the light. The gourmet also decided the darker beer was more suited to his tastes.
“Alright, that should be fine. The first round I placed in the pot cooks quickly. The second set will take a little longer. We’ll need to heat the pot twice.”
Stick after stick of vegetables, tofu, beans and more were plucked from the steaming pot. They glistened with beads of fresh, red soup. The spicy aromas surrounded them.
“The special properties of Ma La Tang; numbing, spicy, and hot to eat,” the gourmet said, almost to himself.
At this point it was background noise, as the two younger gentlemen had already begun pulling the food from the bamboo shoots with chopsticks and stuffing it in to their mouths.
“Amazing!” The first bite of Ma La Tang brought with it that full-bodied aroma that had been tantalizing them thus far. It filled them up, bringing with it that special sort of happiness that comes from a delicious meal. That sensation bloomed in the eyes of the Gourmet’s guests.
It wasn’t long, however, before the ‘spicy’ descriptor earned it’s presence. It was like a fire burned viciously in their mouths, paired with just a hint of numbness on their lips and tongue. The three each hurried to take a gulp of their beers. The thick malty tastes mixed with the fresh spices and eased the burn. In the interim the Gourmet had lit the fires once more.
The second wave was a sight to behold. Large chunks of abalone, a full lobster, fresh oysters and all manner of sea food were placed in the pot.
“The various types of foods each require different cooking times. If you’re interested you can remember the order we place them in.” The Gourmet looked from Hua Li to Lan Jue and, seeing the satisfaction in their faces, a smile crept on his lips.
A cook who understood his guests was happiest. To them, cooking was an art form. If the tasters appreciated what they tried, this meant his status as an artist would also appreciate.
“Gourmet, such a disregard for the gifts of heaven! Ma La Tang with so much delicious food, and on top of that an entire lobster!” Lan Jue was almost speechless as he took another sip of his beer. He watched the two spindly feelers sticking from the edge of the pot.
“So stop eating,” the Gourmet rejoined with a smirk. “The most delicious things in this Ma La Tang are the abalone and the lobster. I call it Spiced Numbing Lobster. This is the first time I’ve had you try this, fearing you wouldn’t like the taste. Don’t tease me.”
Lan Jue chuckled. “So why bring it out today?”
The Gourmet shrugged. “Just your lucky day. I’ve actually been lazy the last few days, and haven’t cooked anything. I’ve been eating nothing but soda crackers to keep my stomach acids at bay. I couldn’t stand it anymore. It had nothing to do with you coming.”
Lan Jue chortled. “I guess it indeed was my lucky day.” He turned to look at Hua Li. “Do you know how he manages to stay thin and still cook like this? It’s the thing I admire most about him.”
“’Cuz he’s lazy?” Hua Li replied.
Lan Jue shook his head. “No. Because of his fastidiousness. If it’s not the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten, it wont get past his lips. He’d rather eat soda chips to stave off starvation. That’s how he does it.”
Hua Li blinked, and stuck up his thumb towards the gourmet. “That’s some high moral principle!”
Soon the abalone and lobster were ready to eat. That flavor… simply ambrosial. Lan Jue finally understood that the Gourmet had not overstated his assertions of the lobster’s taste. This meal was positively dripping with pleasure.
Alright, so this is rather lazy, but there really is no way to describe 麻辣烫 in English that makes it sound appetizing or special in any way. ‘Numb Spicy Soup’ doesn’t get the saliva flowing. ↩
Man after my own heart. Ok. Pointless peanut-gallery commentary ends here, I promise. ↩