“When you’re in Chengdu you have to try the hotpot.” TRY THE HOTPOT, people kept telling us. EAT THE HOTPOT. We had no idea that Szechuan hotpot was so famous, but as lovers of spicy foods, of course we were going to try it. We’d had a few hotpots in both London and China and had some idea of what to expect. Armed with my elementary ability to read Chinese, we headed to a place in the south of Chengdu that was recommended by a friend: Shu Jiu Xiang (蜀九香).
The place was way fancier than the other budget buffet-style hotpot restaurants we’d visited where you pick skewers of ingredients from a cooler and then tally up the number of skewers at the end. We took our seats at Shu Jiu Xiang and the waitress gave me a clipboard with a text-only list of items we could choose from for our hotpot battle. The blocks of Chinese characters were nearly impenetrable, but after seeing my horrified expression she brought over something like a “look book” of their menu items. I marked as many delicious things as I could until our waitress started to freak out that I’d chosen too much. In the end we got a plate of lamb, one of pork and one of beef, a spread of root vegetables, and a gigantic bowl of the most beautiful mushrooms we’ve ever seen. It was time to begin the battle.
There were two kinds of hotpot broth, normal and spicy, and somehow we managed to get a big pot of the spicy stuff with a smaller pot of normal broth in the middle. This turned out to be a blessing, because the spicy stuff was FUCKING HOT. We like hot stuff, but seriously, this was hot. And while the Szechuan region is renowned for its spicy food, the thing that kicks it up one more notch is the Szechuan peppercorn. Some say it has a lemony taste, but actually it just makes your entire mouth ridiculously numb, which somehow actually makes the spicy hot peppers even more painful. So, in essence, this thing was painful to eat.
Hotpot is usually eaten with a dipping sauce. At some restaurants you can choose to mix your own, from a selection of things like peanut or oyster sauce, vinegar, garlic and spring onions. At this restaurant, the waitress chose for us, and we each got an entire bowl full of sesame oil. She grabbed mine and enthusiastically spooned in a bit of oyster sauce, garlic and MSG, motioning to us, “See? This is how you properly eat hotpot!” We gave it a try, but together with the three or four centimetres of oil on the top of the hotpot broth, it was a bit much.
We’d ordered a lot of food, but somehow managed to finish the whole thing. The waitress almost couldn’t believe it when she took away the empty plates. And we felt so victorious. Achingly full and with numb mouths, but victorious. We payed and hobbled out of the restaurant.
I thought we’d won, and that we had beat the hotpot. But the next morning, our stomachs moaned that we were wrong. Our abdomens suffered throughout the day, but by the evening we were ok again. Except that neither of us really wanted to eat Chinese food anymore. That night we had pizza for dinner. The next day we still didn’t really feel like eating any Chinese food. The smell of MSG-infused Chinese delights made me nauseous. Even Mook, lover of spicy food, didn’t want to see or smell a chili or Szechuan peppercorn. Our love affair with Chinese food was over, prematurely killed by our battle with the hotpot. This proved to be a major problem because our next stop, Chongqing, turned out to be the home of the spicy hotpot, and the hotpot smell lingered up and down every single street in town. I couldn’t wait to get out of China.
The infamous Szechuan hotpot is definitely a must-try, but its oily, numbing power is something that needs to be respected. Prepare your bellies in advanced and proceed with caution!!