Chengdu is a vibrant city brimming with a lively ambiance, an overcast sky and the scent of chili pepper across its chaotic streets. Our team landed in Chengdu on Sunday 10th July after 31 hours of exhausting travel, and had our first client meeting on the following day. Our client appeared to be excited by our team’s presentation, and thus invited us to a “Sichuanese Hot Pot” for dinner. Hot pot is the pinnacle of all culinary experiences for Sichuanese… We could not reject the opportunity of experiencing such Chinese authentic eating culture.
We arrived to this loud, partially obscured and boisterous restaurant embellished by traditional Chinese lamps. The floors were partially slick with oil and rests of the previous meals. A crack team of girls patrolled the hall sweeping and wiping the floors, clearing and setting up tables. As we sat around a large table, an army of boys and girls quickly brought two massive boiling pots with bright fluorescent lights shining down on a steaming vat of hot-flavored oil, slowly de-coagulating into a bubbling, fragrant soup of bobbing chili peppers and hua jiao Sichuanese peppers.
“It is ready now!” Heidi (Chinese name here), one of our student translators shouted. With a giddy look in her eyes, she grabbed plates of pork intestines, beef strips, and cow lungs into the boiling pot, adding a plate of bamboo shoots, river algae, and thin slices of tofu. She slowly but steadily stirred the magic mixture with her chopsticks. As everyone would repeatedly and vigorously start stuffing their faces with the vast amounts of food while drinking as many Tsingtao beers as possible, our hosts kept throwing plenty more ingredients to the pot. These included but were not limited to freshwater creatures, fish, all parts of the pig, and vegetables including lettuce, leeks, potatoes and onions. For an instance the hot pot reminded me of Mary Poppins’ handbag which could magically carry and eject anything from it. Whatever can be boiled can be thrown into the pot, turning the basic chilli pepper oil foundation into a more vibrant red and sticky potion.
For the first-timers, here is briefly what you would experience during the hot pot… The hot spices will spread themselves across your lips and burrow deep underneath your tongue as your whole mouth begins to buzz and grow curiously numb (think of getting anesthesia shots from your dentist before he/she catapults your mouth). You will sweat like never before. Your eyes will shine as if you had just gone out of a Swedish sauna and your head will begin to grow light as if it was solely navigating through space. You may even see shooting stars as the shouts of your neighbors blend into background noise. You will place the cow stomach tripes you have just pulled out of the hot pot into a bowl of chopped garlic, cilantro and soft, fragrant oil. You drop this dripping yet somehow crunchy morsel into your mouth and, suddenly, conversion will be complete – you are now part of the Sichuanese family!
Hot pot is an important social event for Chinese people. It is a bonding experience and a rite of passage. Business deals and marriage proposals alike can be sanctified before the hot pot feast. There is an infinite number of hot pot restaurants in China, from Beijing to Guangzhou, but as any Sichuanese can tell you, the most authentic thing can only be found here – in the land of red hot chili pepper and home of Hua Jiao.