Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Tale of Two Hotpots

Two hotpot meals bookended my week, one at the perennial family favourite, Hua Yu Wee, and the other at Ting Yuan Ma La Hotpot down on Liang Seah Street. Coincidentally, both meals cost approximately $90, although one was for three people and the other four*. So how did the two meals stack up against each other?

*The tab at Ting Yuan was $92 but that included a bottle of beer.

The meal at Hua Yu Wee was a belated birthday celebration. Mum who had had an (by her standards) unsatisfactory hotpot meal the previous week was hankering for another hotpot. Such small portions, she grumbled. So we went to Hua Yu Wee where we could indulge in a far more decadent version. Not that Hua Yu Wee is by any means luxurious but at least the portions would be big and the quality of the ingredients would be indisputable, mostly because we would be paying market prices for live seafood. In fact, the prawns were so live they tried to make a break for it as we waited for the stock to come to a boil. Mum and I were quite disconcerted and couldn't bring ourselves to cook them. Dad offered to do the necessary but we didn't trust him to keep the marauding prawns in hand. Instead, we sat back and watched our friendly hostess (incidentally the daughter of the boss) plunge our prawns into the roiling stock... Ah, to be waited on hand and foot...

our live prawns getting the treatment


For $90, the three of us had prawns, scallops, sea cucumber, slices of garoupa, fish maw, chicken, vegetables and so on. It wasn't a bargain by a long shot, but we got what we paid for - superfresh seafood. Sadly, even then, Mum did not quite get what she had gone there for. She had wanted white pomfret. Unfortunately, wild pomfret is now apparently quite elusive. She left feeling thwarted...

Over at Ting Yuan Mala, the experience was completely different - it was all about quantity. You pay $16.80 per head for all-you-can-eat, $5 for every top-up of stock, mala, milky chicken or szechuan sour and spicy. You help yourself to bowl after bowl of sesame sauce, spiked with garlic and whatever floats your boat.

yin yang

In my opinion, the question of quality is irrelevant where mala hotpot is concerned. I'm quite sure experienced eaters of mala hotpot would have been less than impressed by the range of ingredients on offer at Ting Yuan, but as a virgin mala eater, I was quite content with what we ordered - beef fillet, pork fillet, cow stomach, pig liver, slices of fish, prawns, luncheon meat, fish glue, crabsticks, potatos, beancurd sticks, assorted mushrooms, homdemade noodles, veggies (tong oh and Chinese cabbage). The thing is, the stocks were amply jacked up with various peppercorns, chilli oil and herbs, even the milky chicken stock, so as to make the most of simple everyday ingredients. There was nothing subtle about it, and to throw prime beef or premium seafood into the pot would have been criminal. Hence, although the ingredients were certainly not comparable to that of Hua Yu Wee, it made no difference to me.

Where it did matter was the quality of service. This being a typical Chinese eatery, I wasn't expecting polite, but surely efficient wasn't too much to ask for. At Ting Yuan, service was a slow and haphazard affair. To start with, the staff gave our order away to some other table, which was a rather strange mistake to make, considering the chances of two tables ordering exactly the same thing. Then, after we had ordered more stock, it took so long to arrive that one of our two pots of stock boiled down to nothing and started to char. At this point, HM, with great presence of mind, ordered us all to throw the stock that remained in our bowls back into the pot... As KKN pointed out indignantly, it was the restaurant's fault that we had to order more stock in the first place. We had sat there, with the stock boiling away, while waiting for our first order to arrive. Anyway, to make matters worse, our second order of ingredients was also wrong but we just couldn't be bothered to raise a ruckus. (My theory is that we were lulled into non-action by the endorphin-releasing properties of the capsaicin.)

Still, for a first time, Ting Yuan was a good enough introduction to mala hotpot. I'm looking forward to more sweaty, teary and snot-filled meals. For a less robust evening though, I'd still return to Hua Yu Wee.



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