A lily-livered foreigner braves the fiery cauldron that is Chóngqìng’s specialty.
You know your food’s going to be fucking hot when the restaurant has installed a sprinkler system to spray you with a cooling mist while you eat.
Recovering in the comfort of my hostel 24 hours after my first Chóngqìng hotpot (huǒ guō), I can tell you I underestimated this fiery cauldron. I can also confirm that eating toothpaste is an effective backpacker’s antacid.
I’m not someone known for her tolerance of chilli. I’ll take a little hot sauce with my eggs benedict on a Saturday, but basically, on a scale of 10 to weak, I’m a two.
But Chóngqìng, nestled in southwest China, is the hilly, riverside home of hotpot, and you can’t come here and not give it a go.
I built myself up to it, spending my first night eating chilli-encrusted spare ribs in a (barely) converted World War II bomb shelter. Packed into a rock tunnel with fancy suits and oil-splashed squalor side-by-side, I was reminded that in China, the quality and presentation of the food itself is the only thing that matters.
With some 30,000 hotpot restaurants in Chóngqìng, I was feeling overwhelmed by choice. The popular places are easy to spot, with lines of colourful plastic stools outside on the pavement for prospective customers to slurp water and eat watermelon while they wait.
After a sweltering day missioning about, I opted for convenience, choosing a street-side restaurant at the Jiàochǎngkŏu night market. I was sat down directly in front of the air conditioner. A prime spot for a lily-livered wàiguórén (foreigner).
Watermelon is brought out first. Despite night-time temperatures in the high 30s, I don’t advise scoffing it – you will need it later. You pick your stock according to your liking (or guts) and it arrives cold, to be heated over a gas flame in the centre of the table. I ordered “zhōng là”, or “medium” spicy – which overestimated my constitution considerably.
You then order your raw ingredients, like pumpkin, radish, tofu, cured sausage, sliced ham and spiced beef. Or you can sample goose intestines, pig skin, or liver, depending on how you want to play it. You control the flame and cook your ingredients as you like, with dipping sauce on the side.
The broth boils blood red, with eye-watering quantities of whole and chopped chilli peppers, garlic cloves and sliced ginger. I started with small strips of tofu, and with lips immediately burning, quickly realised I’d be working to a 2:1 bite-to-beer ratio. If you learn one sentence in Chinese before eating hotpot, make it “another cold beer” (“zài lái yī píng píjiǔ”).
I also took comfort in the fact that regulations introduced in 2017 banned restaurants from recycling hotpot stock. Interestingly, this wasn’t pitched as a public health initiative, but rather a measure to help “inexperienced foreign diners to fend off food poisoning”.
Raw offal is now required to be washed separately from, say, your radishes. Waitstaff are obliged to help foreigners keep their broth boiling (I’m loath to think how many of us screwed this up before a regulation was deemed necessary).
At a total cost of NZ$31 (including four beers), price is not prohibitive, even if you are a total loner. But it’s a dish designed to be social – so if you can go with friends, so much the better.
As I sat there sweating and swearing, I looked at the groups around me: young people unwinding after a week’s work, families a couple of generations deep, and groups of middle-aged men with their tops rolled up playing cards and drinking hard liquor.
It wasn’t hard to imagine the Chóngqìng’s “mǎtou wénhuà” (“wharf culture”) of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hotpot restaurants only a minute’s walk from almost every dock on the Yangtze River would host boat-pullers (“trackers”), traders, and, more illicitly, gangsters and businessmen doing deals over boiling oil.
These days Chóngqìng top-brass take pride in having cracked down on gang corruption, but the essence of hotpot culture in this grimy, sweaty, lively city seems unchanged.
This is a meal not to be messed with.
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