In Singapore, a country as fast-paced and voracious as they come, mala xiang guo feels right at home. We introduce this iconic dish and one of its earliest proprietors on the island, Ri Ri Hong.
The year is 2021, and mala xiang guo is everywhere. At the likes of Bedok Interchange, People’s Park Complex, and Bugis Street, effusive queues and piquant aromas herald these iconic stalls. People from all walks of life – old and young, local and foreign – delight in what is essentially a Sichuan stir fry, inexplicably connected through the communal experience of teary eyes and swollen lips.
Not to be confused with mala tang, its hotpot equivalent, mala xiang guo is made by hand at hawker stalls since its introduction in 2009. Customers select their own ingredients yong tau foo style, guided by the keen eyes of a stall assistant in the time of the pandemic. The food is then chopped into bite-sized pieces, boiled, and tossed into the wok, where a mixture of vegetable oil and beef fat sit in eager anticipation.
As always, spice is the name of the game. The proverbial mala sauce, soon added to the wok, can contain up to thirty different herbs and spices – including but not limited to star anise, coriander, black pepper, and even tofu-chilli. Of course, each stall has a different recipe, guarded by its owners with all the ardour that Singaporeans invest into food.
And amongst this abundance of mala xiang guo proprietors, Ri Ri Hong stands out. It was founded in 2011 by Mao Cong Fang, becoming the first in Chinatown and soon eclipsing all others to be hailed as Singapore’s best. At present, it takes up not one, but two stalls at People’s Park Complex, a testament to its popularity. Even amongst the myriad other vendors of Chinatown, it is easy to spot, framed by striking red letterboards that proclaim it as the most authentic and unique of its kind.
Unlike other mala xiang guo haunts, Ri Ri Hong charges by the type of ingredient instead of weight. Their extensive selection includes mala xiang guo staples like lotus root, bean curd skin, bamboo shoot, luncheon meat, chicken strip, kang kong, king oyster mushroom, shrimp, and rice – all of which are freshly stocked and doled out in comparatively generous amounts. Vegetables value at $1, meats at $2, and seafood at $3. The system allows customers to better estimate the final price, which typically falls around $9.
To determine whether Ri Ri Hong’s cult status is indeed well-deserved, we weathered the long lines for a bowl of xiao la (the least spicy of three heat ratings) Ri Ri Hong Mala Xiang Guo with tang hoon, bok choy, enoki mushrooms, bean sprouts, instant noodles, Chinese sausage, and luncheon meat, then finished with peanuts, sesame, and coriander, amounting to $10 in total. As expected, the portion was large, and the variety of foods made for a tapestry of texture. Both the tang hoon and Chinese sausage proved to be highlights, one chewy and the other vaguely sweet, adding dimension to the bowl.
But the bane of its appeal was the mala sauce, consisting of over 20 different spices. Despite the mix, it was surprisingly garlic-centric, along with distinguishable hints of chilli, ginger, and even cinnamon, steeping our lunchtime selections in all its pinguid glory. It also did well not to overwhelm, as other mala sauces tend, and allowed ingredients to retain their individual flavours.
For the spice averse, we are happy to report that Ri Ri Hong’s xiao la level is a manageable choice, more focused on salt and garlic than spiciness. In comparison, the zhong la (the second/middle heat rating) and da la (the third and spiciest heat rating) tell a different story, adorned with dried chillies and drizzled with peppercorn oil for a potent, albeit gradual, hotness that will last for hours – and keep you coming back for more.
Born and raised in Mainland China, Henan-native Mao credits his success to ten years’ worth of training at a Thai restaurant, which exposed him to the so-called ‘Singaporean palate.’ This entails a deviation from the sort of tear-jerking, mind-numbing spice of Southern China; as well as an inclination towards the less-salt-less-oil gospel that so many mala xiang guo makers preach.
Despite this, any future plans remain obscure at best. Mao runs the stall with the help of select friends and family, an intimate affair, and does not seem interested in commercializing or expanding the business. Either way, for as long as Ri Ri Hong rolls up the shutters, diners will flock to their dual stalls at People’s Park Complex. And, if the time ever comes for them to forsake the wok, we will have lost something of a Singaporean institution.
Ri Ri Hong is located at 32 New Market Road, Singapore 050032. Opening hours are 10am to 9:30pm from Monday to Sunday.