How a bowl of spicy noodles made this Chinese town famous


A malatang stall at a popular snack street in the Qinzhou District of Tianshui City. Tourism in the area has suddenly shot up, thanks to a viral social media trend featuring the spicy malatang. — Xinhua

The influx of tourists to the Chinese city of Tianshui was sudden and overwhelming. Government offices opened their normally restricted parking lots to accommodate the surge. Railway operators extended train services. Officials held a snap meeting to discuss what to do next.

All this over a 15 yuan (RM10) bowl of meat and vegetables mixed with a tongue-numbing spicy sauce.

The frenetic scene unfolded in Tianshui over the past week as it raced to capitalise on a food trend to attract more visitors. The swift response signalled the urgency among local officials under pressure to boost revenue amid a property slump and slowing economy.

Tianshui, an ancient Silk Road hub of some 2.9 million people in the northwestern province of Gansu, rolled out the red carpets after its version of the street food “malatang” went viral.

The dish, which originates from Sichuan, is a soup-less version of hotpot. It became a sensation after a university student posted a clip of the dish on social media over the Lunar New Year that’s been reposted more than 1.9 million times. The “dry pot” has won attention as far off as New York City, and has spawned regional variations across China.

Tianshui’s version features a sauce made of dried pepper that only grows in the Gangu county of Gansu, one of China’s poorest provinces. A local newspaper describes its taste as slightly sweet, with the aroma of meat, fruits and honey.

The city’s efforts to capitalise seem to be paying off. Online travel agency Tongcheng Travel Holdings said searches for Tianshui as a tourist destination soared 616% in the seven days to Wednesday (March 20), compared to the week earlier. Hotel bookings on the firm’s website jumped 76% compared to the same period in 2023, the most in nearly three years.

Shares of Tianshui Zhongxing Bio-Technology, a local producer of mushrooms – a popular malatang ingredient – jumped recently to its highest level since September.

Local Communist Party chief Feng Wenge urged officials to “push for the grand development of Tianshui by taking advantage of a bowl of spicy malatang”.

Seizing the moment, the city’s bus operator arranged services to take people straight from the train station to restaurants.

China’s slow economic recovery – one hampered by deflationary pressure and a protracted property crisis – has people looking for inexpensive travel deals as opposed to bigger outlays for foreign trips. Domestic travel over a recent major holiday topped levels from before the pandemic but average tourist spending slid.

“People have been feeling the pinch of the slowing economy and declining corporate profitability”, and many are curbing their expectations for income, said Chen Xin, head of China leisure and transport research at UBS Securities. “The days are gone when they knew they could make money and so splurged.”

Cash-strapped Chinese cities like Tianshui have every reason to try to make the most of every opportunity to make money.

The local government earned just 4.6bil yuan (RM3.01bil) in 2023 from mostly tax revenues under the main budget, below a pre-pandemic level of 5bil yuan (RM3.27bil). That’s far short of its spending from the same account.

China is no stranger to food fads – every city seems to have its own special fare that visitors just must try. But since the pandemic ended some places have tried to cash in on people’s interest in a quick, cheap trip to sample, say, barbecue skewers in Zibo, in the east.

Tianshui’s food fame likely won’t be enough to turn its finances around, especially if the example of Zibo is anything to go by. The city has recently seen a drop in tourists, with restaurants slashing jobs or even closing.

“Local governments need to think about ways to create more tourism activities that offer better experience – it could be a night market, a museum of local culture,” Chen said. “Otherwise the craze in Tianshui may be as short-lived as in Zibo.”

There are already signs the euphoria is already fading, at least with investors. The mushroom firm Tianshui Zhongxing’s shares have slid more than 8% since its high. – Bloomberg

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