I love Chinese food. Always have, always will. When I visit China in 2010, I’m cognizant of the fact that what I’ve been eating for the past two decades in the US isn’t real Chinese food, but I’m completely ignorant of what real Chinese food will be.
I try many (vegetarian) dishes throughout the country. Out of dozens, a few are unpalatable, several decent, and many delicious. Only one, though, will stand out in my mind for years to come: hot pot.
Hot pot is essentially a shared stew. (The closest Western analogue that I can think of is fondue.) A large pot containing spicy broth is brought to the table, and each person adds meat or vegetables to the simmering stock. Ingredients are removed when cooked, and new pieces added in. There is usually a dipping sauce to drench the cooked items in additional flavors.
Allegedly the dish was first created more than 1000 years ago in Mongolia as soldiers filled their helmets with water to cook meats. Today, it has spread through eastern Asia, with different regions adding their unique flair. I’m sure they’re all quite lovely, but my obsession is with the Sichuan variety.
I have never heard of hot pot when I visit Chengdu. My friend, a bit of a spice connoisseur, tells our local guide of her love of Sichuan food. Our guide seems impressed that we are not intimidated by spice, and she shares with us the tale of Sichuan hot pot. We decide we must try it. Our guide gives us directions to a hot pot restaurant she fancies and writes down the characters for various vegetables and tofus. (She also notes that we want a vegetarian broth, though I might as well admit now that I have no idea if anything we ate in China was truly vegetarian.)
The hot pot restaurant is in a large building in Chengdu’s bustling shopping district. The restaurant itself is huge, and, as we hand over our cheat sheet to the confused-looking hostess, it’s obvious that we are probably the only Westerners to have stepped foot in here.
Our table has a butane heater fitted into the middle of the table. The waitress covers our bags with napkins as other patrons unabashedly stare at us. A large metal pot arrives, filled with two kinds of broth, while different types of tofu, potatoes, lotus roots, and other vegetables are set out on the table. We have no idea what’s going on. We dump all the ingredients into the simmering pot.
Waitstaff rush over, their faces sporting giant grins tinged with anxiety. They drain some of the broth as it begins to boil over onto the table. We don’t quite understand what we’ve done wrong, and it’s not until we later mull on the event that we realize we were meant to add in the ingredients one by one, not all at once. Archimedes would be so disappointed in us.
The (hopefully) vegetable stock has been mixed with numerous spices, including ginger, black-bean paste, and onions, and floating in the broth are seeds, peppercorns, and small red peppers. We poke the vegetables with our chopsticks and hesitantly fish out pieces of tofu, dropping them into the garlic-and-oil dipping sauce.
I wish I was a poet, because I do not possess the vocabulary necessary to describe the incredible blend of flavors dancing across my tongue: pungent garlic, almost-unbearably hot peppers, occasional zesty citrus. Then, a slightly worrying sensation: We all pause as our gums, throats, jaws begin to tingle like after taking a fresh sip of carbonated soda. We squeal to each other, laughing and not understanding what we’re experiencing.
We finally pinpoint the culprit as the peppercorns, and when we’re feeling daring we crunch down an entire one between the teeth and laugh at the shocking sensation it produces. (Later, we learn they’re Sichuan peppers, and apparently they produce “neurological confusion.”) We discover the inner section of the pot is milder stock, while the outer ring is filled with the super-spicy, peppercorn-heavy broth. Quickly we’re fighting over the outer ring and its bizarre sensations.
By the end of the meal, we reek of garlic and peppers, our mouths nearly numb. It is the most amazing meal I have ever had.
We try hot pot a few more times before our China tour concludes. The second time is in Chongqing–the guide there does not want to recommend a restaurant (she fears we will hold the tour company responsible if we are food poisoned), so instead she writes down something like, “We are hungry. Take us to hot pot,” to hand to a cab driver. When we find a cab, I greet him in Mandarin and hesitantly hand over the request. He squints, cocks his head to the side, and bursts out laughing. We load in the cab and are off to deliciousness!
The third time is in Shanghai. We’re told about what appears to be a fairly upscale chain restaurant in the shopping district. It’s a bit of an effort to find in the large building, and it’s different than the other two places. Here, there are individual hot pot heaters and make-your-own dipping sauce.
Years later, when I visit my friends in London, we call around for restaurants serving Sichuan hot pot. A dive-y joint promises vegetarian broth. When we show up, we see the restaurant is divided into two sections: the traditional Western-ized restaurant and the hot pot tables. We are the only Westerners on the hot-pot side. At first our waitress tries to convince us to have the mild version. When we explain we’ve had the real thing in Chengdu, she relents and brings over the second-best hot pot we’ve had thus far.
Soon after that, I have a 3D portrait of our first hot pot experience commissioned as a present for my friend.
I’ve searched high and low for the Sichuan version in this country and thus far have been unsuccessful. I’ve scoured the internet for a decent recipe, ordered the spices, and made it myself, but it just isn’t the same.
If you know of a Sichuan hot pot place on the US east coast, let me know in the comments. I am willing to travel for it. Lord, how I’m willing to travel for it.
What dish do you most-fondly remember from your travels?