Chongqing is one of those massive Chinese megacities that you should really have heard of (the city’s urban area does, after all, have an estimated population of 37 million people), but perhaps haven’t. Located in Sichuan province, home of some of the spiciest food on the planet, Chongqing’s culinary specialty is the hotpot, earning it the moniker ‘hotpot city’ with an estimated 50,000 hotpot restaurants.
Hotpot is basically a cook-it-yourself meal. A giant steaming vat of broth and chili oil will be set down on a gas burner embedded in your table and then it’s up to you to choose from dozens of raw ingredients to throw in it over a lazy few hours. This is a communal meal, best suited to groups of four people or more, and isn’t something to be in too much of a hurry about.
Choose your hotpot base – ‘half and half’ is the most popular (half beef broth and half oily chili broth) and your ingredients. The picture menu is thankfully easy to follow with simple and accurate translations and ludicrously low prices (most plates cost between R15 and R20). Options range from beef, lamb or duck slices, noodles and myriad vegetables such as Chinese leeks and cabbage to the more boldly traditional tastes such as ox liver and duck blood.
Once the hotpot has reached a suitably scorching temperature a waitress will wheel a trolley over and hand you all your accompaniments on small plates Then just throw it in and let it start cooking. Once you think something looks ready, scoop some pieces out into your bowl and eat. If your broth levels start getting low, wave down a waitress to pour more in from the kettle and if you’re still hungry order some more plates.
Finally, a word of advice. No matter your spice level tolerances make sure you have a ready supply of Qingdao beer or soft drinks on standby to fan down the flames that will inevitably come over you when you accidentally bite down on one of the several dozen chilies floating in the broth. This place is certainly authentic in that regard.