Spicy soup numbs some consumers' feelings toward China
Literally translating to a spicy numbing hot pot, malatang is a build-your-own soup originating from the southwest Chinese province of Sichuan.
Though it may take you a couple bowls to fully appreciate the soup’s distinct pins-and-needles sensation, malatang is incredibly addictive. And for spice-crazed Koreans, the dish became a sensation some four years ago.
But the once beloved malatang has been getting the cold shoulder recently, from locals incensed by China’s nationalistic rhetoric during the Winter Olympics.
“I’m part of the mala mania but I’m going to quit eating malatang,” reads one post from Feb. 10 on Twitter. “Let’s all at least boycott malatang until the Olympics ends,” reads another.
Russian YouTuber Kristina Andreevena Ovchinnikova, 25, also announced a malatang boycott on Feb. 8. Her channel Soviet Girl in Seoul has around 1.13 million subscribers.
And among the string of comments calling quits on malatang are mounting speculations about the Sichuanese cuisine that are leaving some foodies flummoxed — "Should I not have eaten all those bowls of malatang?"
To unearth the truth behind some of the claims that are being made about the soup, the Korea JoongAng Daily interviewed several people well-versed in malatang and Chinese culture.
1. “All malatang restaurants are owned by Chinese people”
Of the four largest malatang chains in Korea, only one is actually based in China.
Tanghwa Kungfu Malatang is a Chinese malatang brand with over 3,000 branches, according to its social media page. It has the most malatang chains in Korea with some 250 branches.
Many branches of Korean malatang brands are operated by Chinese or Joseonjok [the Korean word for the ethnic Koreans born in China].
Lahuokungfu, Mala Gongbang and Pixchu Mala Hongtang are all based in Korea. Ten percent, 30 percent and 70 percent of their branches are operated by Koreans, respectively, according to the restaurants’ main branch managers.
Lahuokungfu has 147 branches, Mala Gongbang has 55, and Pixchu Mala Hongtang has 41 nationwide.
But Korea is home to dozens more malatang brands, many of which opened after the soup’s boom in 2019 when mukbang YouTubers popularized malatang as a mainstream trend.
In Daerim-dong, Yeungdeungpo District where one of the nation's Chinatowns is located, 88 malatang restaurants appear on Google maps as of late February.
Both Korean and Chinese malatang brands exist among the smaller soup chains. But it was particularly interesting that a few of the Chinese malatang brands with less than 10 chains in Korea were actually huge companies with over 1,000 branches around the world.
For instance, Haidilao, which has seven branches in Korea, is the largest malatang chain in China that has stores around the globe, according to its website.
2. “Only Chinese people or Joseonjok can open malatang shops”
Some online posts assert that Koreans are unable to open malatang shops because the Chinese and Joseonjok keep the secrets of the dish to themselves.
While it is true that many Chinese and Joseonjok run malatang branches, Choi Jun-yong, CEO of Pixchu Mala Hongtang, said that the low number of Korean workers in the business is due to cultural differences.
“They [Chinese and Joseonjok] have a way of doing business that often doesn’t suit Koreans,” he said.“So while Koreans are not necessarily banned from operating a malatang branch, it may be harder for us in a cultural sense to work in these environments that are dominated by Chinese.”
3. “All malatang restaurants use products from China”
“There are a few products like yuba [tofu skin] and Shichuan peppercorns that are not produced in Korea, but serve as important ingredients in the soup,” said Choi. “So to a certain extent, we do need to use products imported from China.”
Shichuan peppercorn is especially crucial to malatang as they are the ones behind the numbing spiciness of the soup.
4. “Malatang restaurants are unsanitary”
In 2019, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety set out to inspect the sanitary conditions of malatang eateries in Seoul and discovered 37 mala suppliers and restaurants that had broken the rules for managing ingredients and sanitation standards.
Violations included using or selling ingredients that were not approved for import or were of unknown origin, violating sanitary standards and doing business without obtaining a government license. One restaurant in Seoul was caught serving ingredients that had passed their expiration dates.
Recognizing this issue, malatang joints have since improved their hygiene standards. Many stores hang physical signs or post pictures on social media that display their sanitation efforts, though occasionally, malatang still makes the news with off-putting additions in the soup.
5. “Only lower class people eat malatang in China”
According to Yoo Sang-cheol, Director of China Research Center at the JoongAng Ilbo, malatang is a common dish in China that everyone enjoys.
“When I was in Beijing, I would go to eat malatang sometimes, and never noticed any skewed demographic or class difference among customers.”
The dish did start out as a street food in the Sichuan region and there are still venues in China that sell the dish for as cheap as 17 yuan or 3,000 won ($2.50) for every 500 grams of toppings. However, there are more expensive malatang restaurants as well that sell the soup for around the same price as in Korea, said Yoo.
In Korea, malatang costs around 8,200 won per 500 grams of toppings. Throw in a couple of fishcake skewers and some thinly sliced beef and an average bowl of malatang amounts to around 10,000 won.
6. “Malatang in Korea has been localized to suit the Korean palate”
According to Yoo, the soup has roots in China but the local malatang carries a distinct Korean flair.
“The malatang broth in China is much saltier, spicier and greasy,” said Yoo, “so people usually don’t drink the broth and instead just eat the vegetables and noodles.”
This may come as a shock for local malatang fans as the broth in Korea has a strong kick as well. But for Koreans who often believe it isn’t a meal until having eaten rice, local malatang chains have created a lighter broth for customers to dunk some rice into after they’ve finished the noodles and toppings.
Less exotic spices go into the Korean malatang broth as well, said a branch manager of Lahuokungfu from Jilin province, northeast China who wished to remain anonymous.
“Our stores and many others here as well use less spices than malatang restaurants in China so the Korean version has a softer taste overall,” said the worker. The traditional soup includes some 20 different spices.
“Korean malatang also uses zhi ma jiang [roasted sesame paste] in the broth, while only a few malatang branches in China use this,” she added.
In the Korean malatang, the nutty flavor of peanut or sesame paste is considered an iconic flavor of the soup.
So if I love Korean culture, should I stop eating malatang too?
Anti-Chinese sentiment in the country has been growing for a while now as China has been laying claim to traditional Korean food and clothing.
But the Olympics seemed to have acted as a turning point for the built-up anger toward China.
The Games’ opening ceremony on Feb. 4 featured an ethnic Korean woman in hanbok (Korean traditional clothes) as one of China’s ethnic minority representatives. Then, there was also a seemingly unfair call toward a Korean short-track speed skater Hwang Dae-heon in comparison to the Chinese skater in the 1,000-meter semi-final race.
Hashtags such as “No China” and “Justice for Korea” began to gain traction.
Several malatang restaurants are now expressing concerns about a potential mass boycott against their businesses.
“We recognize that there is a malatang boycott, but to avoid any misunderstanding and provide relief for our branch owners who might be worrying about this movement, our malatang brand has been created by a group of young Koreans and all of our branches are operated by Koreans as well,” reads an Instagram post from a local malatang chain Mala Hao on Feb. 18.
But there doesn't seem to be cause for any major concern just yet.
Staff from all four malatang restaurants said they have not noticed a significant decrease in their sales.
According to Chun Sung-yong, a business professor at Dankook University, the No China movement is unlikely to progress very quickly.
“For a boycott movement to kick off, there needs to be a clear target, most commonly a company, and high level of perceived efficacy for consumers,” said Chun.
“But in the case of China, there is no clear target brand because China produces so many products and also supplies various raw materials. So it is not easy for consumers to select a specific target of a boycott, and this lowers the perceived efficacy of a boycott for consumers.”
Chun added that he advised against boycotts because such “emotional responses may only harm small business owners.”
Notwithstanding, there are those who contend that boycotting malatang is necessary, citing China’s various unjust actions against Korea, not only at the Olympics but also in trade and politics.
“Instead of just standing by and being angry, I believe the right thing to do is take action and stop eating malatang, a representative Chinese food,” said a 24-year-old surnamed Kim.
Kim emphasized that he doesn’t boycott all Chinese or malatang restaurants but only the ones that are owned by Chinese or Joseonjok.
“Boycotts against countries and companies are sometimes misunderstood as groundless hatred that jeopardize local business-owners,” he said.
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]