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The cuisine of the southern Chinese province of Sichuan is well known for its chilli peppers. In the regional capital of Chengdu, chillies are not only thrown into the wok but also into hotpots: fondue pots filled with broth, in which everyone cooks their own food. Placed on restaurant tables, a hotpot dinner is the height of sociability.
On hot summer days, the residents of Chengdu like nothing more than a spicy fondue. Fight fire with fire, as they say. And because the same chilli peppers can be used to warm you up in winter, just about any night of the year is a good time for a Sichuan hotpot. You will find a hotpot restaurant on practically every street corner. The menus offer dozens of raw ingredients for you to cook yourself. And if you’re not keen on hot peppers, a milder version of the hotpot is usually available.
Because hotpot meals take time to prepare and everyone is busy choosing their own ingredients, hotpot restaurants usually have a vibrant atmosphere. Families not only share a table but also the fondue pots and bowls of ingredients. Waiters continuously bring further tasty morsels, while the diners chat away and drink tea.
People who are happy with the food and company are not shy about showing it. In China, slurping and talking with your mouth full is seen as a sign of enjoyment. To outsiders it may seem as if there is a complete chaos, but that is a misconception. To avoid food poisoning, different chopsticks are used for raw and cooked ingredients. Another nice custom is that when all the food is finished, the remaining broth in the pot is shared out between everyone. Be careful though as all those hot peppers have had time to stew for the whole evening!
Hotpot restaurants still have chefs even though the diners cook their own food. They supply the basic ingredient - a tasty broth which includes sugar, vinegar and herbs as well as chilli peppers. Each restaurant has its own recipe. The simmering pot with spicy broth in the centre of the table is surrounded by raw ingredients: typical choices include slices of meat, beansprouts, mushrooms, baby sweetcorn, eggs, tofu and leaf vegetables. To add additional flavour, the Chinese also enjoy various dipping sauces. Soya sauce, sesame sauce and vinegar are mixed to taste with garlic, sugar, salt and the inevitable red peppers.
Chongqing Cygnet Hotpot has an English language menu with lots of vegetarian options. Locals speak highly of Jincheng Impression and Ba Shuda House, but as the menus are only in Chinese at these places you’d better be prepared for a culinary surprise.