It is lunch time and long queues are forming at People's Park Food Centre, along a stretch of stalls that serves food from China.
Hungry diners cough and sneeze at the fiery fumes wafting out from three stalls selling a new hawker food craze - mala xiang guo, which means hot numbing fragrant pot in English.
Instead of the usual mala hotpot, where diners dip raw vegetables, seafood and meat into a spicy soup that numbs the tongue, people pick what they want from a selection of ingredients and these are then stirfried in a chilli-laden gravy.
Nan Yang Xiao Chu Mala Xiang Guo. Photo: Lim Yaohui & Sam Chin for The Sunday Times
Ingredients commonly used for steamboat meals, such as leafy greens, mushrooms, meats and seafood, are available. Other ingredients such as broccoli florets and sliced lotus root can also be added to the stirfry.
Diners tell the stall assistants what they want and choose the level of spiciness - low, medium or high.
The ingredients are then stir-fried in a fiery gravy made with a variety of herbs and spices. The final dish is eaten with rice. An average bowl costs about $5 and is good for two people.
There are no fewer than six outlets selling this dish here. Three are in People's Park Food Centre, one in Geylang, and two at Food Republic food courts.
The customers are mostly China nationals who are familiar with the dish, which is popular all over China, but especially in Sichuan and Beijing.
Stall owners, however, say that local diners are also catching the chilli bug.
Henan-born Zou Hai Rong, 42, owner of Ri Ri Hong Mala Xiang Guo (pictured above) at People's Park Food Centre, says in Mandarin: "Mala hotpot is popular here, but Singaporeans cannot take the spicy and oily soup.
"Mala xiang guo is a good alternative, and it still includes fresh ingredients. If diners request, we don't add the spicy sauce.
"Also, many busy executives have no time to sit over hotpot during lunch. So with mala xiang guo, they can just eat quickly and go back to the office."
The stall opened almost a year ago and business has been so good that Ms Zou opened another one a stone's throw away in the same food centre.
A few doors down, Mala Xiang Guo Ju (pictured below) also gets a steady stream of customers.
Former restaurant chef Zhang Bin, 38, who has been in Singapore for 10 years, decided to open his own outlet after noticing that diners were catching on to food from China.
The Xi'an native says: "The most important thing is making a flavourful gravy. It's quite addictive and many customers who start off with the low level of spiciness will come back for the higher ones."
One such diner is Malaysian student Tan Yong Lee, 19, who eats mala xiang guo once a week. She says: "A lot of food in Singapore is very sweet, so when I came across these stalls I was very happy as I love spicy food.
"I've brought my friends here too, but not all of them can handle the heat, even though I take only the low or medium spice level."
If you do not want to break a sweat in the hawker centre, mala xiang guo is also available in food courts and a restaurant in Geylang.
Food court chain Food Republic has two Fragrant Hot Pot (pictured left) stalls at 313@Somerset and Katong I12 to cater to the influx of Chinese nationals and tourists to Singapore.
A spokesman for Food Republic says: "The first stall at 313@Somerset opened in 2009 but started off slow as Singaporeans did not really understand or were able to accept the different levels of mala. But now, business has improved."
The stall in Katong opened in November 2011.
There are also plans to expand the brand into other food courts.
Guangdong-born Lei Ling, 26, who has been in Singapore for four years, says: "I eat mala xiang guo occasionally as it is an authentic Sichuan cuisine which I enjoy. It is also not expensive. For less than $10, my boyfriend and I can have a proper meal."
Mr Nathan Lim, 28, an accountant, says he savours the fiery flavours of the dish with his colleagues at least once a month.
He says: "You get a huge portion for a very reasonable price, what's not to like?
"Five of us can share a $15 portion and order other yummy dishes from People's Park Food Centre. We've also graduated to the medium level of spiciness as it's really quite shiok."
MALA HOT SPOTS
RI RI HONG MALA XIANG GUO
What: The first one to open in People's Park Food Centre almost a year ago, Ri Ri Hong now has another outlet in the food centre to handle the long queues that started forming in front of the first stall.
A variety of vegetables (from $1), meats (from $2.50) and seafood (from $3) is available.
If you cannot take the heat, you can also ask for the ingredients to be stir-fried without the fiery gravy.
It is best to go before noon, or be prepared to queue for at least 10 minutes to place your order and another 10 minutes for the food to be ready.
Where: People's Park Food Centre, 32 New Market Road, 01-1042 & 01-1052, open: 11am to 9pm daily
MALA XIANG GUO JU
What: Former restaurant chef Zhang Bin decided to open a stall featuring the popular Sichuan dish.
His version of the sauce has more than 20 herbs and spices.
Like the other outlets, a variety of vegetables (from $1), meats (from $2) and seafood (from $3) is available. You can also choose the level of spiciness.
Where: People's Park Food Centre, 01-1048, open: 10am to 10pm daily
NAN YANG XIAO CHU MALA XIANG GUO
What: While other stalls in the food centre focus on just mala xiang guo, owner Wang Wei Jun also serves a variety of Chinese dishes such as gong bao chicken and Chongqing sliced fish.
Choose from vegetables (from $1), meats (from $1.50) and seafood (from $3) for a mala meal.
At lunch time, the waiting time for the food is at least 10 minutes.
Where: People's Park Food Centre, 01-1064, open: 11am to 9.30pm daily, closed on alternate Thursdays
FRAGRANT HOT POT
What: If you prefer eating this dish in air-conditioned comfort, head to selected Food Republic food courts.
Prices are slightly higher though, with vegetable prices starting at $1.20 for 80g.
Seafood items start at $4.50 for 100g while meat items such as pork belly, baby pork ribs and sliced beef are priced at $3.20 for 100g.
Where: Food Republic food courts at 313@Somerset, Level 5, and Katong I12, Level 4, open: at 313@Somerset, 8am to 10pm (Mondays to Thursdays), 8am to 11pm (Fridays to Sundays); at Katong I12, 10am to 10pm (Sundays to Thursdays), 10am to 11pm (Fridays & Saturdays)
SHI AI MALA XIANG GUO
What: This stand-alone restaurant not only features mala xiang guo, but also dishes such as pig's ears fried in chilli oil ($8) and spicy chicken ($12).
Its xiang guo items such as vegetables start at $1.80 for 100g, while meat and seafood items start at $3.80 for 100g.
Where: 196A Geylang Road, open: 3pm to 3am daily
Info: Call 6844-4015
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on January 6, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.