Mala hotpot has been described by food critics as fiery, mind-blowing and tongue-numbing.
And that is precisely why it's Sichuan-born, Singapore-based actor Zhang Zhenhuan's cup of tea.
The strapping 29-year-old TV actor loves the rich, spicy north-eastern Chinese dish so much that whenever he's back home in China, he has it once a week.
"In general, I take to spicy food very well. Mala hotpot, to me, is a perfect combination of spiciness and fragrance," he said in Mandarin.
"You have to eat it with a thick layer of oil, accompanied with lots of chilli, salt, MSG and garlic.
"I always get a real kick from eating it, as I start sweating profusely."
Over chocolate-drizzled and raspberry-flavoured churros with M last Friday at pop-up cafe Churros Factory at 112 Katong mall, Zhang added that the differences between Sichuan cuisine and local cuisine are "vast".
"When I first came to Singapore 12 years ago, my Singapore friends thought I was weird, because I'm used to eating extremely oily Sichuan fare," he recalled.
"It's common for us to dip our vegetables and meat into dollops of oil."
His taste buds have changed over time.
"Right now, I've acclimatised to Singaporean tastes..."
Zhang, who will be performing at tonight's Celebrate SG50 countdown show at The Float at Marina Bay as part of the popular showbiz collective 8 Dukes of MediaCorp, will soon be seen on our TV screens in upcoming Chinese New Year-themed series Good Luck.
The family drama, co-starring veterans Hong Huifang and Chen Liping, will premiere on Channel 8 on Feb 2.
It's the festive season. Did you pig out over the Christmas period?
In the past, whenever it's Christmas, I'd feast on sweet stuff like log cakes.
But not this year. I started hitting the gym two weeks ago to get myself in shape. Food-wise, I've been sticking to a strict diet of steamed chicken breast and broccoli.
It's no fun eating these, but I know I have to put in the effort to achieve my desired physique.
Which local hawker dishes do you like best?
When I first arrived in Singapore, I didn't like roti prata and murtabak. But now I do.
My favourites would be bak chor mee and sambal sotong. Before the Longhouse food centre at Upper Thomson shut its doors, I went there quite often.
Any favourite restaurants in Singapore?
For hotpot, the Hai Di Lao restaurant chain is the best. Recently, I've been getting invites from friends to go there for a meal. But due to my current diet, I have to forgo the mala soup base and choose the clear soup base instead.
I also like Famous Kitchen, a Chinese eatery at Sembawang Road, for its seafood. It has great desserts too, such as mango pudding.
Is ambience important when you're planning a dinner date? Have you been to restaurants with romantic ambience?
Of course it's important for a first date. (Smiles) But subsequently, the quality of food is more important. There's a nice restaurant on top of Mount Faber, the view is fantastic.
Do you cook? What are your signature dishes? If you could master one dish, what would it be?
I can cook fried eggs with tomatoes, but I don't think it counts right? It's too easy to whip up! (Laughs)
Another dish I have attempted - albeit unsuccessfully - is Sichuan Hui Guo Rou (Twice-Cooked Pork). Heat control is vital when it comes to this dish and I'm not good at it. One of my resolutions for 2015 is to improve my cooking skills. I would love to learn how to cook chilli crab well, as it's such an iconic Singapore dish. When my Chinese friends come to visit, I can prepare it for them.
This article was first published on Dec 31, 2014.
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