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.
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.
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.