A Fiery Feast: Sichuan Hot Pot

Bright fluorescent lights shine down on our Sichuan hot pot, Chengdu’s most popular dining option. The steaming vat of chili oil is slowly de-coagulating into a bubbling, fragrant soup of bobbing chili peppers and hua jiao peppercorns – a unique mouth-numbing spice from the western mountains of Sichuan – when my friend Fan Jing finally says,

“Ok, now its ready.” With a fervent look in her eyes, she scrapes beef strips, pork livers and chicken kidneys into the boiling pot, adding a plate of bamboo shoots and cucumbers. She stirs with care and blissfully licks the soup off of her chopsticks.

This is Lao Ma Tou Hot Pot on Yulin Central Street in Chengdu. The cavernous restaurant is absolutely full and the deafening roar of 250 Sichuanese calling for more beer and exchanging cries of ganbei gives the illusion of a wedding celebration or a reunion of old comrades.

Hua Jiao peppers

But its just another Wednesday night in Chengdu. The whole Yulin Street strip is bustling with activity as waiters scurry out onto the street passing out baskets of sunflower seeds to placate the dozens of people sitting and stewing in the Sichuan summer, waiting impatiently for a table to free up.

Hot Pot is but another Sichuanese institution – like teahouses and foggy skies – without which the locals would slowly wither and die. In fact, the overcast Sichuan sky and the damp conditions of the Sichuan basin make hot pot, chili peppers and hua jiao peppercorn a necessity.

“You see, Sichuan is a very damp area,” explains Fan Jing. “Such weather is bad for the bones and bad for circulation. We have to eat spicy food in order to balance out our body temperature.”

Her pedantic expression dissolves into a dreamy distant gaze as she slurps up hot pot dripping duck intestines.

There are dozens of different hot pot varieties: the basic chili pepper-hua jiao red pot; the split red and white – white pot being a non-spicy version with mushrooms in a chicken broth; crab hot pot; fish head hot pot; lamb hot pot; beer lamb hot pot; bullfrog hot pot; and snake hot pot, to name a few.

Whatever can be boiled, can be thrown into the pot to augment the basic chili pepper oil foundation. Standard ingredients include: all parts of the pig, chicken and cow; various freshwater creatures, such as river eels, snails, frogs and fish; any and all vegetables, including but not limited to potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, lotus root, bamboo, leeks and onions and a variety of gourds and tubers for which there are no English translation.

Hot pot is the pinnacle of all culinary experiences for Sichuanese. Hot pot is a social event, a bonding experience and a rite of passage. Courage is measured in a man’s ability to eat hot pot repeatedly and vigorously, while drinking as many beers as possible. Acceptance into the heart of a Sichuanese woman requires several demonstrations of hot pot eating prowess. Business deals and marriage proposals alike can be sanctified before the hot pot altar.

Hot pot restaurants are, in general, loud and boisterous halls partially obscured by rising steam and moving bodies. The floors are often slick with oil and remnants of the last meal. An army of girls patrols each restaurant sweeping and wiping the floors, clearing and setting up tables and reporting back to a cadre of well-dressed men with sharp eyes and earphones. Outside, another small army of women prepares the ingredients. A crack team of boys and girls take orders, deliver the food and accept cash. Specialists tend to the gas stoves located in the center of each table.

Thus is the chaos of the hot pot establishment managed and controlled, with the boss and his wife attending to the private rooms and smiling fondly at old friends.

At dinnertime, hotpot restaurants all across Chengdu are a meeting place for local family, friends, and visitors alike

For the first-timer, hot pot can be a religious experience.

The searing spices will attach themselves to your lips and burrow deep underneath your tongue. The hua jiao will induce looks of confusion and wonder as your whole mouth begins to buzz and grow curiously numb. You will sweat like never before. Your eyes will shine and your head will begin to grow light as the shouts of your compatriots and neighbors blend into background noise.

You will place the cow stomach you have just pulled out of the hot pot into a bowl of garlic, cilantro and soft, fragrant oil. You drop this dripping yet somehow crunchy morsel into your mouth and, suddenly, a mad craving will seize a hold of the first-timer and conversion will be complete.

There are many dark rumors in Sichuan that attempt to explain the addictive nature of hot pot, but none can fully explain the feeling one has when the scent of boiling chili pepper oil wafts by. The countless successful hot pot palaces throughout China, from Beijing to Urumqi to Haikou are testament to the power of Sichuan Hot Pot.

Of course, as any self-respecting Sichuanese can tell you, the real thing can only be found here, in the Land of the Red Hot Chili Pepper and the Home of the Mysterious Hua Jiao.

 

There are hot pot restaurants all over Chengdu. Some of the best ones are in Yulin, but don’t limit your search to a small geographic area. Stay tuned for specific reports on good hot pot locations from the Underground Gourmet.

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About Sascha

Sascha Matuszak is a writer and commentator on domestic and international culture and politics. He's lived in Chengdu on and off for twelve years and currently makes his home in the South of Chengdu.

22 Responses to “A Fiery Feast: Sichuan Hot Pot”

  1. Nice blog, and nice pics.

    Since Chongqing got split out from Sichuan decade ago, Chongqing people will tell you with serious that this is not another Sichuanese institution.

  2. Thanks Yves … Chongqing and Sichuan have a LONG history of denying and embracing each other. I ain’t gonna get into that, but maybe we should another time. As for hot pot, i have to say, and i know this is CHENGDU Living, but CQ hotpot is better.

    Anyone care to argue about it? ;)

    • I have to agree! I’m not positive how much variation there is in actual taste, but the atmosphere and setting of Chongqing somehow makes the experience feel more authentic. Chengdu hotpot is still great though!

  3. Would definitely recommend Lao Ma Tou Huo guo. Great atmosphere..pretty authentic right with the wooden benches and the building itself, wow!! what a spectacle…mmm miss my mu er, duck/goose intestines and of course stomach and brain …mmmmm! Oh wow almost forgot to mention those lovely cubes of blood.

  4. My memories about CQ hotpot is a bit far far away, almost 7 years ago. It was good, especially Lao Zao huoguo 老灶火锅, but I remembered that I prefered CD hotpot at the time. CQ hotpot was only about 麻辣, spicy and “numb”, while CD hotpot is really rich in flavors. CD hotpot can be very spicy, but it doesn’t hurt the mouth like CQ hotpot does. And there are so many different types of CD hotpot. My favorites are of course, Lao Ma Tou, then Pang Ma 胖妈,san zhi er (3 ears), Tan Yu Tou (Fish Head Tan), and Ma La Kongjian. Ohhhh, whichever, I love them all. I miss hotpot! Now I make hotpot at home in Paris sometime, but the problem is that I can’t find enough people to enjoy with me. A hotpot without hot atmosphere is not a real hotpot.

    • Absolutely – hotpot seems to be as much a group activity as a meal. Without the atmosphere, it just doesn’t feel right.

  5. mmm, great article and great food! Hot Pot is just one of those Sichuan (and ex-sichuan, CQ) institutions that the apprentice must master before really coming to terms with the unique Sichuan lifestyle.

    While in Suining on the way to CQ I wandered past a donkey and wild boar hotpot that I was quite intrigued by. Unfortunately I couldn’t get any other takers from our group at the time. Would have been nice I reckon.

  6. I’ve just had pig brains. The taste isn’t that bad but the chalky/slimy texture kind of freaks me out. I’ll still order it just to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone sometimes.

    Chinese people will often tell you that eating pig brains makes you smarter. That sounds sketchy to me.

    • i have had pretty much everything in hot pot at one time or another. pig brains, fatty donkey meat, succulent tender dog and once “rabbit more tender than bullfrog” which was very tender indeed.

      my favorites are:

      duck intestines
      cow stomach
      chicken kidneys
      tofu strips
      various fatty beef and pork strips
      and dumplings.

  7. Hi Sasha – Working on a TV show about the food in Chengdu. You seem very knowledgeable! Would love to give you a ring sometimes. Do you want to throw me a line? Keep up the great blog!

  8. I have had the Sichuan hot pot before, but never in Chendu. GF said it was about right. And this sounds about right….

    “The hua jiao will induce looks of confusion and wonder as your whole mouth begins to buzz and grow curiously numb. You will sweat like never before. Your eyes will shine and your head will begin to grow light as the shouts of your compatriots and neighbors blend into background noise.”

    And it just keeps reducing and getting more intense.

    Was there also the day after experience where you swear you will never eat something so spicy again in your life

    “Please dear God, make the pain stop, I need to work soon…. That was the last time, I wont do it again?”

    Or just me every time I forget the pain, and the GF wants hot pot

    • you should check out this track by Screaming Jay Hawkins called, Constipation Blues. hot pot doesn’t bring on constipation, but it sure does bring on the blues.

  9. This hotpot post makes me so homesick right now even thought I just made hotpot here in NY like 10 days ago.
    People like me who grew up eating this kind of stuff will never get tired of it.
    Thanks for sharing this to the rest of the world!

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