The bottle of Baijiu makes the rounds, floral inscriptions hiding the flame that lurks within – 106 Proof of firewater. Baijiu, a traditional Chinese liquor made from a variety of grains, is classified under the umbrella category of Shaojiu – any spirit distilled from Sorghum, and is the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in the world, comprising a $23 billion market.
Today’s bottle is a prized vase of Fen Chiew, straight from the stills of Shanxi province. Known as the “Grandfather of Chinese Liquor,” this variant of Shaojiu has been distilled for over 1400 years. Fen Chiew undergoes a complex and lengthy fermentation, using a blend of sorghum, peas and rice underground in several different jars until it is distilled into a clean, floral liquor that rings in at a heady 53% ABV. Despite the strength, the spirit is remarkably smooth, though its power is soon felt in waves with even the smallest of pours.
Enter the Shaojiu Supper Club: a rotating cast of the city’s culinary-minded underground on a rice wine-fueled quest across New York’s five boroughs and beyond. This round, we’re matching this floral firepower with palate-scorching Sichuan, venturing to the MaLa Project in the Lower East Side to meet up with Brooklyn Brewery Barrel Aging Manager Eric Brown.
The Mala Project is the Lower East’s home to Sichuan Dry Pot, a brothless take on the bubbling hot pot sprawl from Chengdu to the world over.
Soup aside, the idea is the same – a choose-your-own-adventure of over 50 ingredients ranging from prime cuts, intestines, tongue, offal, seafood, root vegetables and rooster testicles (we’ll get there) thrown into a wok amongst a sizzling mix of hell-raising chili oil and a propriety blend of Chef Qilong Zhao’s spices.
MaLa offers up four levels of heat depending on your appetite for olfactory destruction – no spice (no glory), mild spicy, spicy, and super spicy (for sadistic pleasures). The table opts for dueling bowls of land and sea, at respective heat levels of mild and spicy to keep the devil’s fire in an all-important harmonic balance.
By land – The bowl fills with eye of round steak, fat-rich pork belly, stringy pork artery, rooster testicles (Wait, almost there), lotus root, wood ear, bok choy and a heaping pile of potato noodles.
By sea – Fried fish cakes, squid, shrimp balls, enoki mushrooms, tofu skin and wakame pile atop paper-thin konjac noodles awash in a moat of tingling oil, a lone neon-red Chile pepper shining through as the needle at the bottom of the burning haystack.
Ladle after ladle of bountiful ingredients are doled out, imparting waves of flavor across the palate – the thick glaze of pork fat contrasted by the sharp crunch of fried lotus root, the gentle harmony of seaweed echoing the clean brine of the squid backed up by a subtle, umami-laden funk of tofu skin.
Spice levels build at a cataclysmic pace and a rapid-fire rhythm of fork-beer-fork-beer-beer-beer-beer soon develops until the bottles of Tsingtao and Allagash White are emptied across the smoldering table.
And yes, there’s the infamous “Rooster’s XXX,” waxed, whispered and giggled about by food critics in hushed alleyways behind the latest Eataly opening. A quick pinch of the chopsticks, and the “XXX” is all yours – a grainy, somewhat mealy vessel to soak up the numbing oil – nature’s own spice packet. The verdict? Pop ’till you can’t stop.
With scorched gums, tingling tongues and oil-strewn shirts, it’s Mission Accomplished for the Shaojiu Supper Club. We look back at the heaping bowls of dry pot delicacies from MaLa with wistful eyes that still burn and eagerly await the next gathering at their fiery table.