If ever you find yourself in Sichuan Province, China, hot pot is a must. In 2011, UNESCO named Chengdu (the capital city of Sichuan) a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, so you’re guaranteed to find some good grub, from the ubiquitous gōng bǎo jī dīng (Kung Pao Chicken) to hand-pulled noodles. But hot pot is a truly unique experience, and not just in terms of taste. (My first experience with hot pot actually had our cooking oil catch on fire at the table!)
Essentially fondue with boiling oil, the hot pot ritual begins when you order your choice of meats and veggies, ranging from meatballs and potato to goose intestines and lotus root. Then you dump your selection (raw at this point) into your choice of savory oil and/or spicy oil and let it simmer away.
Half the fun is in trying to dig your dinner back out of the oil once it’s finished cooking, with only the length of your chopsticks between your hand and a third degree burn. It’s also an incredibly messy affair; no hot pot joint with any self-respect fails to equip every one of its guests with a full-coverage apron. The one I visited on Friday even provided plastic covers for phones!
Your final hot pot step is to cool your food by dipping your newly regained treat (hopefully obtained with your fingers scorch-free) into yet more oil–a room-temp sesame oil you flavor to your liking. Have I mentioned that oil is a really, REALLY big part of Chinese cuisine? In fact, the Chinese encourage each other to “go for it!” with this phrase: “jiā yóu!” (literally meaning, “add oil”).
Hot pot is always tasty (and worth the inevitable price you pay of leaving the restaurant smelling like it), but this weekend, my friends and I were introduced to an entirely new dish: “hĕn là niúròu”.
This dish, (translation: “very spicy beef”), is Sichuan cuisine at its most quintessential, as the Sichuanese pride themselves on the variety, intensity, and prevalence of the chilies in their food. So what could be better than beef encrusted with crushed red pepper, wrapped around a whole red chili (seeds included as a bonus), then cooked in an oil swimming with peppers of its own?
The fact that our Chinese friend who ordered the dish made certain to give us a health warning only added to its allure.
As a South Texas girl who cut her teeth on Tex-Mex’s jalapeños and habaneros, I took the heat in stride, enjoying the slow spread of the burn. But more than a few of my American friends’ brows held a distinct sheen of sweat post-consumption. Beer became suddenly popular, not so much for its alcohol content, but for its rinse-the-scorch-away properties. Most didn’t go back for seconds (though, as a shout out to gastronomic courage, my husband liked the fire beef so much, he ordered round #2).
The final review on hĕn là niúròu–tasty treat or torture device–was mixed among my American cohorts. My opinion?
Jiā yóu! When in China, go for it! But maybe not as your introductory experience to spicy Sichuan cuisine….