“Sānshíqī” is what we’re waiting to hear.
Perched on wee green stools, with little view of the restaurant in the bunker below, my friend Nathan Thomas and I wait for our death wish to be fulfilled. We’re going to eat the spiciest hot pot we can find in Chongqing, China, and the small piece of paper with the number 37 is our ticket.
Gulping back cans of Tsingtao, we steel ourselves for the experience to come and reflect on what this bizarre city has shown us thus far. By now, we’ve eaten inside a cliff with locals, consumed far too many beers (with the excuse they’re only two per centers), adopted and taught a young Sichuan chef how to play pool, and scaled the hills of the city.
A city of 30 million, it seems bizarre there are not more of us lǎowài around. My feeble research of China did not expel the wonders of Chongqing, nor did I know it existed. The main reason I came was on my dear friend’s recommendation. But we came for no sites in particular, rather we came for this momentous occasion: Chongqing hot pot.
“Sānshíqī!” is finally yelled from within the scrum downstairs.
We stumble down into the bunker and are hit by the spicy smog. We’ve enjoyed paparazzi treatment from the locals because of our rather idiosyncratic looks – Nathan is a tall Aerian fellow, I’m a well-upholstered bald man with a beard – but no one cares about our presence here. We seemingly stumbled into the first floor of hell. Families sweat, despairing over the Scoville levels of their food, their faces red. I’m a dangerous combination of cocky and tipsy.
By now I’ve already had enough numbing, spicy chow. Frankly I’m surprised my tongue hasn’t ripped itself from my mouth and slithered away. We’ve eaten stinky tofu (not as bad as every likes to say), spicy pig’s brains and fish drowning in kilograms of chili. But hot pot is what I came for. And according to Nathan, this place is killer – I later find out what he meant, in more ways than one.
Why Chongqing? Why not Guangzhou or anywhere else around the country? Hot pot can be found all around China. Each region has its own slight variations, but the premise is the same everywhere. It’s a family-style meal, where one orders from a list of ingredients and cooks them in a cauldron of boiling liquid set in the middle of the dining table. In most parts of China the foods are cooked in soup stock. Not here though. Hot pot in Sichuan is a masochistic beast: boiling chili oil replaces broth and it’s further spiked with numbing mala pepper.
Well-versed in the language, Nathan orders from a massive bingo list of dishes. He also asks for the most hellish cauldron of spicy fat they have. He tells me he’s ordered beef, prawn rolls, some greens, some fungi and black stinky tofu.
Nathan tells me he’s ordered something else too. He doesn’t know what it is, but it’s something to do with a pig. I like pigs, I like their meat and insides, so I’m okay with whatever surprise is coming.
A half-naked man bumps past the waitress, drops a boiling pot of oil in front of us and walks off. I wonder why he’s not covered in scars from spilled oil, but also wonder if I can take my shirt off too. But I don’t. You’re welcome, Chongqing.
A quick initiation into how to eat without boiling my insides follows. The trick, Nathan says, is to dunk the freshly fried meats and vegetables into room temperature sesame oil. First though, you need to mix the oil with vinegar and MSG. The tepid oil cools the temperature, the vinegar abates the spice further. The MSG adds, well, its wonderous MSGness. Long live MSG.
The plates arrive at once. So with the initiation done, we tuck into the array of treats. Six compartments divide the pot, and we allocate our dishes to each one. The longest cooking meats go in first, while some only need a few seconds.
The first bite singes the tongue in so many ways, and to the amusement of locals we start making primal noises in reaction to the spice. It’s delicious torture. The MSG tingles the taste buds, the spice whips the tongue at all angles and the mala pepper numbs it just enough to leave you wanting more. I’m left simultaneously cursing and praising Wilbur Scoville in this religious spicy self-flagellation.
Over the course of the meal, the flavours develop and the spice intensifies with each dip in the tepid sesame-MSG concoction. The mystery meat Nathan ordered is the only thing we aren’t fans of – it seems neither flesh or flora, rather a tendinous udder or something.
Just about finished with our meal, Nathan tells the bemused waitress the food isn’t spicy enough, leaving the entire crew of waiters in hysterics. I duck off to the bathroom, where I wash my hands fastidiously before and after the fact, and return to find another piece of pig anatomy on the table: brains.
As we sit, dunking porcine brains into the boiling cauldron between us, I’m left wondering what the first people who came up with this were thinking. We’re virtually in the first circle of hell, boiling brains in oil and consuming them like crazed lunatics. Sobriety out the window, with all of its reason, we revel in the smog and sweat, and pay our waitress-cum-mistress the bill. If Dante were right, and we were aptly punished for our Sichuan gluttony, his would have been a welcome punishment. Hail and rain would have been the perfect antidote for the fire that was left in our mouths and bellies for the days following.
- To read Nathan’s side of the story, visit Intrepid Times