Saturday, November 13, 2010

Taichung - Hassen (Ba Qian) medicinal spicy hotpot

Pretty snazzy sauce station, hey?
This post is from my trip to Taichung, so it's way way way overdue, but I have to get it up because it's one of those things that no-one's really heard of but I think everyone needs to try.

Mala, the numbing spices common in Sichuan and central China, and loved in Taiwan, is pretty common in hotpots. You've probably had it before. But mala hotpot with medicinal herbs? That's definitely news to me. So when we saw it on the menu at this super sleek hotpot restaurant, Hassen (or in Mandarin, Ba Qian), we just had to try it.

Eat your colours
Generally you order per person here, and each person gets their own pot, and their own set meal, which includes the veg and wide noodles you can see above, as well as a choice of meat and of course, soup base for your hot pot.

Never thought a hotpot place could look this good...
It was pretty stupid of me not to take a pic of the pot itself, but basically it was a heavy cast iron flat-ish bowl, or a feel dish or casserole-looking thing with two handles held by hinges on either side. The mall soup didn't look as vicious as the mall hotpots I'm used to, i.e. with floating chillis covering the entire surface of the pot. Instead, there was only a sprinkling of them dotted throughout the dark brothy soup. Its appearance was not deceiving - the soup was indeed only mild compared to its instantly-numbing (and very oily) cousin, and with the medicinal herbs, made us feel almost virtuous dipping our meat into it. The herbs gave the soup a distinct flavour that made it earthier and well, herbal. Aside from chillis and whole grains of pepper, dried red dates (jujube, or hong zao) were also seen in the soup. Dates are slightly sweet, so it probably helped mellow out the spiciness a little, but the predominant herbal taste was dang gui (dried angelica sinensis, a type of apiaceae, or an aromatic plant with hollow roots, as Wikipedia tells us, related somehow to celery, dill etc.), which is known for its restorative properties, especially for women, who tend to be 'yin'. It flavour is hard to describe; if you've had Malaysian bak kut teh pork soup (not the Singaporean/Teochew variety with a white pepper), you would have tasted the same slightly bitter taste of intense earthiness. If I had to equate it to something taste-wise, it would be very rich soil, warmed by the sun, then cooked to rid it of all mineral flavours, and reduced and intensified by 100, with a tiny hint of licorice and very strong pu'erh tea.

Local pork
Anyway, broths with such character are great with simple things like those wide flour-based noodles, tofu and best of all, egg. We poached an egg in the pot and oh my goodness, it made our hairs stand up and we got that buzzing feeling (not from the chilli, but from having flavours that went together so well) that remained for at least a full hour after the meal.

The good thing about being in Taichung is that they have excellent access to farm-fresh vegetables. Taiwan is small, and being in a small city in the middle of it makes sourcing so much easier. Hotpot is a great way to be able to taste all this produce - although admittedly the mala soup base isn't the best canvas for that. So hopefully if you do go, you're not alone, so you can get at least one mala and one 'normal', like the pork bone (think light broth rather than tasty, but heavy, tonkotsu) or fish.

Hassen (八錢 pronounced Ba qian in Mandarin)
25 Gong Yi Rd, Section 2
Nan Tun District
+886 4 23191768
Book ahead for weekend dinner, it's very popular

View e_ting in Taichung in a larger map

1 comment:

  1. what a waste of a space. hot potting in THAT place?