“It’s our last night. What do you want to eat?”
“There’s really only one thing left,” my brother intoned, half sage, half tour guide. “No trip to China is complete without it.”
“Is this that Hot Pot thing?” my sister asked. “I thought you said that would keep us on the toilet the whole next day.”
“We travel tomorrow. Like all day. That might be a bad choice,” my sis chimed.
I was nodding my head to this bit of sound logic. “Yeah, what’s the story with this Hot Pot?”
“It’s like the National Dish of China. I want to do Chongqing Hotpot. It’s one of the hottest. Has this numbing heat…”
“Lord, that sounds like hell.”
My brother laughed, a whole body laugh, a shoulders jumping up-and-down, hand-over-mouth laugh. A laugh that makes anyone watching it envious. You have to be enjoying life to the maximum to laugh like that.
“Yeah. We’ll see,” he said after a while. “We’ll see.”
We would see.
My brother wouldn’t really describe it to us in any great detail other than to say it involved some sort of liquid and an assortment of foods, all boiling. I envisioned some sort of fondue kicked up and made asian, but I would soon learn it was much much more.
First off, It’s a whole body experience. You feel this stuff in your toes.
And it starts almost immediately upon entering the restaurant. The air in the restaurant is thick and cloying. Ventilation is a single cracked window near the ceiling in the back. The room is wide, darkened with wood paneling and a low slung ceiling and each table—be it a two top or a table for eight—was dominated by a gaping hole in its center inset with a large metal ring.
“What powers the burner?”
My jaw dropped a little as I scanned the room. There must have been a hundred tables.
“All these people are all squatting around propane tanks?”
My brother laughed. “Yep.”
Just then, another peel of laughter sounded from a nearby table. Some large Chinese was sweating and laughing and pounding a neighbor on the back with one hand, while using the other to pour more beer for the table. The table must have had forty empty beer bottles clustered at one end and another five ready and waiting. This, apparently, is a Chinese thing. Instead of everyone ordering their own beer, the host orders a bevy, keeps them all at his end of the table and dutifully pours them out to those with empty glasses. Like how we do a bottle of wine in the United States. Beside all the laughing man’s beers, there was a scattering of empty plates and sullied bowls on the table and in the center of it all, a churning cauldron of red broth with peppercorns and oil floating on the surface.
“Yep. Hot Pot.”
Here it is: You and a number of friends—the more the merrier—huddle around a propane tank attached to a jet engine of a burner. You then put an enormous silver pot filled with a brothy liquid and fire it up. You have the option of getting just one broth if you like, but we chose to split our cauldron in two with two different liquids: regular (an average vegetable broth) and the red-hot Chongqing, armed with about a thousand peppercorns and something called Mala, a numbing spice that deserves a whole post of its own [coming soon].
Next, you order about fifty beers and while your host—for us, my beloved brother—pours them out, we are given a clipboard and paper filled with a checklist of about 200 boxes of raw food items. Meats: pork, beef, lamb, mutton. Seafood (still live or freshly caught): scampi, shrimp, scallop, whitefish, redfish, bluefish. Veggies: every single veggie on the planet. Pseudo meat: different types of tofu, tempeh, tofu skins, et cetera. Check the boxes, hand it off to some lady and while you wait, take one of the little bowls in front of you and go make your own customized dipping sauce.
If you are lucky—and we were—the plates of raw food are there when you return and with little ceremony the host begins dumping food into the boiling cauldron. After some indeterminate time you inch closer and try to pick out the cooked bits with chopsticks without burning your hands.
I am sweating an instant after the first taste plucked from the red hot Mala section, a piece of onion and tofu seeped in the stuff. My mouth is blazing. Heat is everywhere. Inescapable. I am sitting 2 feet away from an erupting volcano, hot splatterings soaking little oily droplets into my shirt sleeves and threatening 2nd degree burns. The food is a thousand degrees, the dipping sauce I made is too spicey, and to make matters even worse—or is it more pleasurable—my mouth is going just a bit numb from the Mala spice. I gaze around the table. My sister seems composed as always, but my brother seems to be in a similar state as I am, sickly pale and sweating, but unable to stop.
The air is thick and the beer is only spreading the fire and my vision is doubling, but what fun, eh? Should we get more?
What an experience. About two hours later I stumble from the restaurant, still sweating, tipsy, nerve-endings spluttering and asking hard questions. The air outside isn’t cool, but it is better than inside, and as we walk away I wonder if that even happened.
I would find out the next morning, in the bathroom, that yes, yes it did happen. Hot Pot happens.
This is why I travel.