So Rui shows up with her sister Xiao Xiao and after introductions they take me out to a local restaurant to sample the legendary Chengdu hot pot or ‘Huo Guo’. In China, Chengdu is famous for this and there are hot pot houses everywhere. If you ask anyone, anywhere, what is the most well-known dish in the country, it will always get the vote. I always thought that hot pot was something that your Mum does in a casserole dish, (yeah right!) What anyone has neglected to tell me is that huo guo translates into ‘Fire Dish’.
In the taxi I ask them why people drive with such lunacy here. “They seem to swerve without looking. I’ve never seen driving as bad as this anywhere”.
“Actually you are mistaken.” bats Rui. “It is because they are so skillful. Chengdu drivers are some of the best in the world.” she boasts.
“Does that mean I can relax when the driver turns wildly into a busy main road without looking? They must have special intuitive powers” I think skeptically. “Do you like Sichuan food?” asks Xiao Xiao from the front seat.
“I’ve only had the food in the guesthouse so far. So I don’t really know. Does that count?”
Rui then leans closer to her sister, says a few sentences in Chinese and both of them burst out laughing. Feeling a bit left out of the loop, I enquire what the joke is about. “You are in China, but haven’t had Sichuan food before?” adds Xiao Xiao.
“No, this is my first time.” and at that, big grins appear across their faces until they start laughing again. Even the taxi driver gets in on it, having I assume, asked what was so funny. In the end he too is roaring with laughter while McIdiot here sits there trying to smile through the whole thing.
“Well I am sure you will find this will be an experience you will not forget” says Rui in a slightly patronising tone, holding back the hysterics.
Entering the restaurant, I follow behind the girls wondering what is about to happen with a rising sense of concern. The first thing I notice is that the table has a hole in it about the size of a washing-up bowl and a gas burner underneath. A large stainless steel basin divided into two halves is brought in and placed carefully in the hole. One part of the basin has a white broth with vegetables and half a fish in it. The other part contains a dark crimson soup with a million chillies or ‘la jiao’ floating in it. There is also traditional ‘Chinese medicine’ in there that looks like seed pods of some kind. The waiter then brings over a plate of maybe a quarter-kilo of thick bright red chilli paste loaded with seeds on a plate and scrapes the whole thing in too. The flame is then lit under the table and the soup remains boiling away throughout.
“My God! We’re not really going to be eating that? I fret in disbelief. “That could actually be quite dangerous”.
“Don’t worry. I think Westerners aren’t used to such spicy food. You can always have the fish soup. It’s very mild” reassures Rui, having seen my growing straight-faced look of seriousness.
“I don’t like fish, but it’s ok. We English love it spicy,” I declare defensively, referring to our love of Indian food. “I can handle it”.
Raw meat and vegetables on separate plates are ordered, including a selection of tofu from a trolley. Platter after platter of raw foods come to the table such as potato, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, ‘Ou’ (lotus root) and a variety of greens all sliced and ready to go. Various cuts of meat including duck’s stomach and duck’s throat appear.
“I hope you’re hungry. We’ve ordered a lot of food.” says Xiao Xiao before giving me my first lesson. “Take something in your ‘kuaizi’ (chopsticks) and put it into the soup…like this. It’s so hot, everything cooks very quickly. The meat doesn’t take long. Try the duck’s stomach. It’s delicious”. Taking out the now grey rubbery meat from the broth, she then dips it into a brown bowl of sesame paste before downing it.
I’ve never been a great stomach eater but go along with it, trying to hide my reluctance. Blowing on it in a hope of cooling it down before the moment of truth, the girls watch intently as I pop it into my mouth hoping I won’t wretch and embarrass myself. At first it doesn’t seem so bad. Though it is still red hot temperature-wise and chewy as hell it’s not so bad. The sesame really makes a difference. Suddenly the chillies kick in though. A searing acid rips down my throat and up my nose followed by the weirdest combination of tongue numbing tastes presumably from the medicine. I contort uncontrollably while my eyes water.
“Are you ok?” chuckles Rui; a look of satisfaction across her face.
“I’m fine” I splutter, wiping my nose with a tissue.
“You can’t stop now. It gets better the more you eat it. Try the duck’s throat”. Duck’s throat is especially nasty looking since it resembles a giant coiled up red and white glistening worm on the plate. It’s actually cut into three foot lengths, which Xiao Xiao shows me how to eat. You have to hold it up at arm’s length with the chopsticks before dunking into the hotpot. Some task eating that as you lower the quivering steaming tentacle into your wide open mouth. Never again I can tell you.
Rui and Xiao Xiao keep eating for over an hour without showing any signs of discomfort until every bit of food has been cleared. Talk about having a cast-iron stomach. I, on the other hand, last about fifteen minutes before the chilli gets the better of me. To top it all, the whole meal is washed down with a big jug of prune juice which they say “is very good for the digestion”.
While writing this, my head is still spinning with weird tastes and aromas, my nose and sinuses are on fire and my guts have followed suit by shutting down all normal functions. It is by far the hottest thing you will ever experience.
You can always tell when a Western person has just eaten hot pot. As they walk through the door of the guesthouse, a red face, streaming nose, mouth open and that ‘about to sneeze’ look is always a dead giveaway! That and an accompanying air of helplessness.
Excerpt from Just Turn Left at the Mountain, Trials & Tribulations Meandering Across Chinese Borders by Andy Smart.