There is no folklore to dry pot, the Sichuan version of "everything but the kitchen sink" cooking (see the recipe). No lineage from Genghis Khan, like the Mongolian-originating hot pot. No auspicious number of ingredients, though the spices can range from 24 to 47.
Instead, tossing chicken wings, slivers of beef, head-on prawns, bok choy and glass noodles in a chile oil-slicked, chile paste-splashed wok is a relatively new phenomenon among locals in China, and Amelie Kang is on a mission to make it a thing here with her first restaurant, MáLà Project in New York City.
"I would get it at least once a week back home," Kang says in between chatting with her cooks at her nearly four-month-old restaurant. "It's addicting."
Home is Beijing, where Kang and her family made regular visits to Chuan Cheng Yuang, a string of dry pot-only restaurants. So fresh out of culinary school in Upstate New York at the Culinary Institute of America, entrepreneurial in spirit and unsure of what to do next, she decided to go all in on a suggestion from her friend.
"I was kind of impulsive," Kang says with a laugh. "I had been thinking about opening a dry pot restaurant when I was still in college. I was very confident at that point."
As she should be: Nestled in an old pizzeria in the East Village, where the brick walls are still exposed and pearly-blue chopsticks match long-necked vases, MáLà Project buzzes just as loudly at 3 p.m. on a weekday as it does during a bustling Sunday brunch. And the main event is that dry pot, a heaping pile of meat, noodles and heat served quirkily enough in a wooden salad bowl with tongs and flanked by cooling pickles; nuggets of sweet, cured garlic; and cans of soy milk.
Kang, along with her close friend and co-owner Meng Ai, want to present a different kind of Chinese food—one that's evolving and, yes, even healthy.
"A lot of people have this perception that Chinese food is greasy and makes you want to lie in bed afterward," Kang says. "But this dish in particular has actual health benefits."
She's talking about some of the dish's ingredients: the nausea-relieving ginger; blood pressure-reducing chile peppers; throat-soothing orange peel; and stress-relieving, gnarled ginseng—all ground up into a spicy oil and paste for the dry pot. (Full disclosure: In our version, we leave out the ginseng, because it's pricey. Clearly, there is a reason why it's locked up behind the counter at Chinese supermarkets.) Although most chefs are territorial around their recipes, Kang and her cooks learned from a dry pot veteran in China, then adapted it to the Chinese American pantry.
Spicy and still satisfyingly slurpy, dry pot is a treasure trove of fiery nuggets, and though Kang and her crew are pros, it's relatively easy to pull off at home with one big pot and a lot of hungry friends. However, the dry pot evangelist isn't done yet.
"I actually want to go back to the restaurants and work for someone else," she says. "I admire Danny Meyer, Stephen Starr and David Chang, and how they open completely different styles of restaurants and are able to keep high-quality standards."
She pauses, her business-driven mind and cook's tenacity at work. "Eventually, I want to do something like that for Chinese food. A lot of people are doing it, but not enough."
As Kang dreams of broadening new borders for regional Chinese cooking, the restaurant begins to empty as the staff prepares for the night's dinner service. That's the future, but right now, it's time for dry pot.
Please check your inbox to verify your email address.