SINGAPORE: When this farmer’s son from Chongqing borrowed money to open a stall selling mala xiang guo in Singapore in 2015, he was taking a gamble in the food and beverage scene here.
Back then, Singaporeans were largely unfamiliar with this stir-fried version of the mala hotpot — 90 per cent of his customers were Chinese nationals.
Pretty soon, Yang Jian, the owner of You Ma You La, found himself in trouble because of weak footfall. To avoid closing his stall, he resorted to secretly pawning his wedding ring, his wife’s earrings and his child’s bracelet.
And then he had a brainwave: Mini lobsters.
“It was a very difficult six months until mala mini lobster came to mind,” he said. “Mala mini lobster was a very popular dish in China, but it was very rare in Singapore.”
He created a WeChat group to advertise the dish, arrange group buys and pre-orders and even post video clips of the live mini lobster and the cooking process to whet customers’ appetites.
Thanks to his quick thinking, he managed to turn his fledgling business around.
Over the next two years, mala xiang guo caught fire and became a food craze in Singapore — and Yang was in the vanguard of migrant hawkerpreneurs here who fanned that flame.
WATCH: From farmboy to Mala king (4:05)
Now with 14 outlets to his chain, his story is told in the On The Red Dot series, Makan and Migrants. (Watch the episode here.)
DREAMS OF A BIGGER LIFE
Born poor, Yang grew up on a farm where, he admitted, “we didn’t dress well, we didn’t eat well and we’d never been to a big city”.
When he finally experienced city life after serving in the military, he was blown away by the lifestyles of the rich, with their big houses and posh cars.
“I told myself to work hard because I thought these people must’ve been able to afford these cars only after working hard and earning money,” recalled the 40-year-old.
Trained as a chef in 2003 — “I topped my class,” he said proudly — he soon got a job in Jiangsu as a head chef. After a year, he took over the restaurant when his boss quit.
In just three years, he earned enough to buy a house. But in 2008, because of the financial crisis, he sold the restaurant to venture out of China.
“I chose Singapore because I’d heard that there were more Chinese (people) around,” he said.
“During that time, Sichuan food wasn’t very popular in Singapore. There were only a few stores but I felt that there was the potential for the growth of Sichuan food such as mala.”
He started off working in a Chinatown restaurant and then in Geylang selling the popular mala duck necks.
“When I received my long-term visit pass, the first thing I wanted to do was to open a mala xiang guo stall in a food court because the risks were lower and the investment capital was lower too,” he said.
Mala, which is from the Chongqing and Sichuan region, is usually associated with hotpot, while mala xiang guo is stir-fried with mala spices and ingredients such as seafood, vegetables and soya products.
However, the origins of mala xiang guo are still undetermined, with Yang pointing out that its name did not exist until recent times.
His own theory is that the dish was conjured up by a Chongqing chef who had gone to Beijing and, while preparing lunch for work, fried different ingredients with chillies and peppercorns.
“He realised it tasted pretty good. After several recipes and taste tests, he developed and came up with this name,” he said.
In Singapore, the mala hotpot craze came some years before the mala xiang guo revolution.
The fascination with mala (“ma” for tongue-numbing and “la” for spicy) has spun off creations ranging from cup noodles to potato chips to burgers, said food blogger Daniel Ang of DanielFoodDiary. It also became a trending item on social media.
“You get mala traces everywhere, and that got people interested in mala as a whole,” he added.
“People who’d never experienced mala would think this tastes good. (They) might just want to go back to its origins, to have a mala hotpot or a mala xiang guo.”
Julius Lim, who writes food reviews for digital food guide Burpple, agreed that as mala hotpot grew in popularity, Singaporean eating culture evolved an attraction for the stir-fried version.
“That’s how it caught fire, and it created the tipping point for more and more mala stalls to open,” he said.
“And mala xiang guo, I think, is one of the lead (products) because many years ago, I didn’t see many people queueing (for it).”
A FUTURE NATIONAL DISH?
But when Yang was starting out — with a S$10,000 investment, part of which he borrowed from friends — business was not plain sailing.
“In the first four months, we were losing money. We didn’t take a salary,” he recounted. “We couldn’t even pay the rent.”
The jewellery he pawned to cope with the losses gave him S$5,000.
“I didn’t know about him pawning the bangle until there was one day, close to Chinese New Year, my mum wanted to put it on my child,” said his wife Chen Liyun.
“He was smart not to worry me. But knowing that my husband had lied to me, I was bound to be angry.”
But he maintained that he had little choice, as the alternative was to close the business.
The mini-lobster idea that then saved the day, and gave him first-mover advantage, was “very smart” of him, said Lim. And his business has since expanded across the island.
Today, Singaporeans make up close to half his clientele, unlike when he first started. “I never imagined that Singaporeans — Chinese and Indians — would actually enjoy mala xiang guo,” said Yang, now a permanent resident here.
By opening stalls in the heartlands, he has provided locals with easy access to mala xiang guo, pointed out Ang.
“This food not only works where the Chinese immigrants or community is, it also works well in the heartlands,” added the food blogger.
Chen, who quit her job as a kindergarten teacher to help her husband, sees mala xiang guo as their gift to Singapore from China, while Yang has even bigger hopes for it.
He wishes to “follow in the footsteps of the early Chinese migrants” and their “famous” chicken rice.
“They made Hainanese chicken rice a national dish. I, too, want to bring the flavours of Chongqing to Singapore and make it a national dish. I’d like to make Chongqing’s mala famous,” he said.
Watch this episode here. On The Red Dot airs on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.