Tuesday, October 12, 2010

October 12th: Hot Pot Heaven

China is a big place (very close in size to the United States; some sources say one is bigger, some the other, depending on if you count the surface area of the Great Lakes or not), and so, like the U.S., different regions have different traditions and different tastes in food. Up north around Beijing, they eat a lot of breads and noodles and dumplings. Along the coast and south-east, seafood is naturally a bigger part of the diet. Hubei Province, where I live, fits in the Central-Southwest culturally and gastronomically. The locals aren't shy about putting the red chili peppers into anything and everything; one phrase we foreigners learn fast is "Bu la!" Not hot! Every one of us has had that moment when we realize we accidentally got a piece of pepper. First your mouth goes numb, and then you find yourself shoveling in rice and scrambling for whatever drinks are available (which often isn't too much, as the Chinese people don't tend to drink with food).

As hot as the local food can get if you aren't careful, the real center for spicy is Sichuan Province. The capital, Chongqing, is Hot Pot central. Sichuanese food may make most people sweat, but if you avoid the pepper flakes it's great. 

Janice, a Chinese friend and one of our FAO 'overseers', had introduced Season and Rebecca to a great hot pot place down by Walmart. They were dying to go again and I'd never been, so on a miserably rainy and muddy Tuesday night we took the bus down for supper. We ducked into a nondescript store front that in fact was under construction and picked our way around the buckets of dry wall mud to the elevator. When we stepped out onto the third floor I knew we were in a special kind of place: the inner wall of the restaurant is a cave with undulating stalactites and stalagmites. We walked by a maple tree with brilliant orange leaves and then under and around eight-foot-tall orange mushrooms to get to our table.

In this place, there is a burner in the middle of the table. On this is placed a divided bowl with two different kinds of soup bubbling away; the white soup is fairly mild while the red soup is full of spices. Then, there is a whole paper full of options; Janice check-marked all the possibilities we were interested in. It sounded like way too much food to me--she must have checked twenty things--but the others assured me that the plates were small.

They brought all of the plates to our table on a huge tray and arranged them on a shelf at the end of the table. One by one, Janice would dump the ingredients off into the soup to cook. Some were ready immediately and some needed to bubble a bit. She would add two or three things at a time and we would all share them before dumping in fresh plates of other things. We had all sorts of things: chicken, beef, tofu, two or three types of mushrooms (Rebecca's favorite), carrots, sweet potato, regular potato, bean sprouts, twisted hard cracker like things, cabbage, greens, seaweed, dumplings, a type of noodle, and plenty of other things. We all ate until were were stuffed--we probably could have done without the last couple of dishes. It wasn't unbearably hot, but we did finish off a two-liter of Pepsi during the meal.

Actually, for me, I ate slowly rather because the food was temperature-hot (fresh out of the boiling soup) rather than spicy-hot. The steam coming off of the soup filled the air like fog; Janice and Season teased each other by blowing it into the other's face. Anyhow, the point is that I understood Rebecca and Season's immediate obsession with the place.  My mouth is starting to water sitting here writing about the meal; I can't wait to be there again. Janice is supposed to translate the menu for us so we can go without the help of a Chinese friend sometimes.

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