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Burst of flavor puts city in Gansu under spotlight

TIANSHUI, China, March 20, 2024 /PRNewswire/ — A news report from chinadaily.com.cn:

Customers hold on to their chosen ingredients at a crowded malatang restaurant in Tianshui, Gansu province, on Thursday. JIGME TENZIN / CHINA NEWS SERVICE
Customers hold on to their chosen ingredients at a crowded malatang restaurant in Tianshui, Gansu province, on Thursday. JIGME TENZIN / CHINA NEWS SERVICE

Delicacy: Special pepper seen as key to unique flavor

It took six hours for Liu Yi, 26, to get to Tianshui, Northwest China’s Gansu province, by train. It took another two hours of waiting in a queue before he could finally get his hands on a bowl of local mala­tang — a mix of foods boiled in hot, spicy broth.

While choosing the ingredients he wanted, Liu picked wide, thin rice noodles and a lot of chillies, along with the usual vegetables and meat. Spicy food is a must for Liu, a native of Southwest China’s Sichuan province.

The malatang did not disappoint. “It has a kind of rich fragrance,” Liu said, after wiping his bowl clean.

The popularity of the dish is suddenly soaring. Thousands of diners like Liu have been making their way to the little-known northwestern city to try malatang, overwhelming local restaurant owners and contributing to local wealth.

These days around 7 am, Ga Haiying’s restaurant in Qinzhou district becomes crowded with diners, some still rubbing their sleepy eyes. Earlier, the restaurant would open at 11 am. To serve the surging number of customers, Ga and her family now work from 6:30 am to 10 pm every day. They are too busy to pause for lunch.

“I have sold malatang for 30 years,” Ga said. “I never dreamed that one day it would be so popular.”

Recently, more than 1,000 customers have been trooping into her restaurant daily, despite an average waiting time of about two hours. The restaurant’s revenue has tripled.

Ma Yulin, a malatang restaurant owner in the city’s Maiji district, said that over the last 10 days, the establishment was packed with diners, more than half of whom were from other cities. Many young customers not only come to eat but also take photos. Ma has hired more workers and added seats to cut the waiting time.

“I’m exhausted,” he said. “I’m overwhelmed that our malatang is suddenly recognized by so many.”

In a typical malatang restaurant, customers select fresh food items, strung on skewers and hand them over to the chef. The chosen ingredients are boiled in the broth and then scooped into a bowl, with or without the original soup, depending on the customers’ preferences. With two spoonfuls of oil and pepper drizzled on top, the bowls fairly burst with flavor.

Since early March, videos and photos of Tianshui malatang have been going viral on social media platforms. It all started when a netizen released a seven-second video on Feb 13 that garnered millions of views. More vloggers followed suit, and then the tourists began to arrive in droves.

Within a month, bookings for hotel rooms in Tianshui had quadrupled year-on-year, according to Ctrip, an online travel platform. Qinzhou district, where most malatang restaurants and attractions are located, received more than 770,000 tourists, local authorities said.

Lei Hongliang, director of the Tianshui Catering Industry Association, said the special pepper used in the dish is key to the unique flavor. Gangu pepper — from the city’s Gangu county — is nationally recognized. It tastes good, but is not as spicy as some other types.

To increase the popularity of malatang, he suggested maintaining a stable price and standardized flavor to “make Tianshui flavor a distinctive brand”.

Each bowl on average costs about 21 yuan ($2.95).

Tianshui has adopted measures to better serve tourists. Tourists arriving by train are greeted by welcome banners and offered free bus rides. Free parking lots are provided to motorists. Some workers from local scenic attractions distribute tickets and give out mascot or gifts at the malatang restaurants.

The city’s attractions include the Maijishan Grottoes, a UNESCO world cultural heritage site, the temple of Fuxi — the legendary ancestor of the Chinese nation — and Nanshan Mountain.

Feng Wen‘ge, Party secretary of Tianshui, said at a conference on Saturday that the explosive popularity of Tianshui malatang presents a rare opportunity to enhance the city’s reputation and also test its service capabilities.

He added that every effort should be made to meet visitors’ demands and improve their experience by increasing offerings and improving service quality. He also emphasized the need to ensure traffic, food and fire safety, as well as environmental hygiene at key locations such as airports, railway stations and commercial streets.

“All forces should be mobilized to provide comprehensive services in every aspect, ensuring that visitors to Tianshui can eat, play and travel with pleasure,” he said.

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