If you have been to Beijing*, you've most likely come across this street scene: a bunch of people crowded around a street vendor, picking out skewers from a bubbling hot red broth. Others are standing around munching on the their bounty with a look of ecstasy on their faces. Passersby, drawn by the sight or smells or possibly even the pheromones of the people in ecstasy, join the crowd. You wonder, what is all this?
Málàtāng seems to be more of a magnet than most other highly addictive street food. Most likely it's because of the number of choices you get. Shrimp, fish balls, tofu, bean curd, lotus root, mushrooms, chicken, beef tendon, noodles, and much more get cooked in a pot of steaming broth laced with Sichuan peppers and sesame oil. You get a plate or take-out container and make your selection either blindly or informed, by asking nicely and trying to remember if there's a chapter on animal parts in your phrasebook. No matter, because everything is cooked through and more often than not, delicious. At 1 rmb or 50 jiao per skewer, you can have a light snack for 3 rmb or stuff yourself for 10 rmb.
I got my málàtāng fix today in Nanluoguxiang, a hutong just east of the Drum & Bell Towers. I got my helping of kelp, squid and fish balls, and bean curd rolls, topped them with a sesame chilli sauce, and sat down on the stoop of a courtyard home. Hutong residents road by on their sturdy steel ol' skool bikes. The young couple next to me were feeding each other tofu skewers. A bunch of grandmothers were cheering on a ruddy-faced toddler as he wobbled his first steps. It was one of those amazing only-in-Beijing moments that I'll remember long after I, someday, leave the city.
*Málàtāng is originally from Sichuan province, but has spread to coastal cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and I'm sure plenty of others
Other street foods to try in Beijing: Bingtang hulu