July 2017. It was my first week in Chongqing, in south-west China, and I was asked by an artist what were my initial artistic impressions of the boiling hot megacity. I was giving a presentation about my illustration work and this question was posed during a marathon one and a half hour Q&A session. There were over thirty artists and creatives in front of me. I had to draw in their minds’ a visual metaphor that would not get lost in translation.
Hot Pot was my reply. The translator reiterated my words: 火锅 huoguo. The room erupted with laughter. It’s true, I maintained, in my mind Chongqing is a boiling cauldron of ultra spicy soup or a ‘fire pot’ which is the literal translation of 火锅. It is divided into two sections; two soups of different colours. An aerial view of Chongqing shows the confluence of the Jialing and the Yangze rivers. The green water of the Jialing does not mix with the yellow water of the Yangze river. Two soups. The roads, railway and footpaths all twist and intersect like loose noodles, sometimes more than five levels deep. Once, I looked at my friend’s sat nav and I saw we did a perfect circle down a mountain road in the middle of the city.
Dip into Chongqing and you will be surprised and delighted.
This was to be my first hot pot experience and it was my birthday. We drove to “Hot Pot Mountain”. It was a single track road but as we neared the complex of restaurants we found ourselves in gridlock traffic. I did not know what to expect, but when we finally parked and walked through a number of gardens I discovered that the 鲜龙井(Xian long jing) restaurant surpassed my imagination. There was a large pond area, filled with giant lotus plants that were over two metres high. Tables surrounded the pond, consisting of stone benches and a stone table with a gas stove inlaid in the centre.
There was a box of tissues, a jar of chopsticks, three small cans of sesame oil and some seasonings on the table. As with most restsurants and cafes, there was a bin next to the table to dispose of used tissues. Tissues were used as much for moping a sweaty brow as for cleaning up food mess.
My friends choose a variety of vegetable dishes from the menu. Then the waitress brought a huge metal kettle of tea and some plastic glasses. She soon returned with a metal cauldron, compartmentalised into two soups. The soup in the inner bowl was a white, mild broth and the soup in the outer bowl was red with at least twenty whole chillies floating on the surface. The stove was lit and the hot pot was left to heat up.
My friend showed me how to mix a dip. We poured our little cans of sesame oil into our dipping bowls and then added crushed garlic and vinegar to taste, mixed with our chopsticks. Apparently I had ruined mine by adding far too much garlic.
The restaurant was bustling; trolleys of cut vegetables, meats and deep-fried rice balls were passing our table constantly. A random man was visiting each table trying to sell local corn-on-the-cob that he had in a wicker basket on his back.
Our hot pot soups were boiling and our trolley of cut vegetables arrived. We were going to do a meat course later as a takeaway for my friend’s husband. I was told that there were small fish in the spicy outer soup, but the mild inner broth was vegetarian. Platters of cut lotus root, potato, green leaves, various types of mushroom, fresh and dried tofu and lettuce were laid on the table around the boiling hot pot. I was so excited; does one just dip something in like a fondue and eat it immediately?
The answer was no. The ritual of eating hot pot is a long process. My friend explained that the items on the tables had different cooking times and that there would be various stages to the meal. First, she added a third of the potato platter to the mild and spicy soup. She was most concerned about whether I could handle the heat of the spicy soup. I dipped a bit of lettuce in the boiling red liquid. No! Lettuce will pick up far too much of the liquid! And you are holding your chopsticks too low! You will burn your arm! Literally, for the entire meal, I was getting told off about something, which our other friend found hilarious. Well, when can we eat a slice of potato from the mild broth? Not yet, was the reply. We can add mushrooms, tofu and greens to the soups, but only some!
We didn’t eat for ages. The heat of the hot pot was making me sweat. It was nearly 9pm and dusk was falling, but the heat was such that my hair was wet with sweat. The photos of me blowing out the candle on my birthday cake are hilarious as my face is dripping and I am beetroot red.
The beautiful lotus flower gardens were beginning to be illuminated by lanterns and fairy lights. I took a walk to see how busy the restaurant was (very!) and I discovered that Hot Pot Mountain was illuminated with lights.
Food! I was allowed to take some lettuce from the mild broth and dip it in my ruined dipping sauce and transfer it to my bowl, then eat it. It was a struggle to use the extra long wooden chopsticks and I was very glad that I had no one sitting to the left of me. I remembered one other communal meal where my poor right-handed friend had been elbowed by me throughout the meal.
After winning a bit of potato from the spicy soup I reassured my friend that I could handle the heat. So a ladle appeared and fish were raised to the surface. I was told to take a tiny fish and try it. The fish was lovely, but stripping the meat from the bones was, for me, like operating on a mouse with a couple of screwdrivers.
We cleared the soups of mushrooms, tofu, greens and potato. The hot pot was refilled with water from the kettle, brought to the boil again and a second round of potatoes, mushrooms, tofu, greens and lettuce was added.
We had three rounds of vegetables before resorting to birthday cake. But it was at this point that the hot pot became really exciting. My other friend wanted to cook some meat to take home to her husband. I was asked if I would like to try the pig’s brain, but I was mid-way through eating half a cheesecake with a tiny ice cream spoon so I had to decline. Sliced offal and large squid tentacles were piled unceremoniously into both soups. I had to laugh because whilst one friend had been at pains to follow ritual and artfully place one piece of potato at a time into the soup, this friend just wanted to feed her husband in a hurry.
The soups took on a new ferocity of bubbling and a grey foam appeared on the surface. The smell was quite simply: boiled squid. I ate my cheesecake and watched the cauldron almost froth over. My friend’s worked really fast to skim the grey foam from the surface and ladle the meats into a plastic container.
It was about 11pm and time to pay. During my time in Chongqing everything, from buying fruit at a market to a high-class meal of African leaves on dry ice, was paid for using Wechat on a mobile. Wechat is a social media app, but also so much more. By scanning a QR code in a cafe the user can pay for the meal through Wechat. Or by scanning a fellow user’s Wechat ID QR code they can pay them money or add them to their social media network. Which is how we paid for the hot pot.
Leaving the restaurant I noticed how many families were enjoying the communal experience of a hot pot meal. It really was awesome fun and a sauna in one dining experience.