Given the popularity of Chinese cuisine in the U.S., your clients may expect to find all sorts of familiar fare during their trip to China. That may not be the case. Many of the items found in local Chinese restaurants in the U.S. are anything but common in the homeland.
Nowhere is this discovery more true than in Chongqing, a dynamic city in southwestern China that is on its way to rival Shanghai when it comes to nonstop growth and modernization. By virtue of its location bordering Sichuan Province, it should be no surprise that the cuisine distinctive to that part of China is high on the list of local favorites.
That means the taste and texture of Sichuan fare is light years away from the relatively bland Cantonese fare most of us order at home. In Chongqing, the emphasis is on hot and spicy. It is here that red and black peppers, chilies and garlic rule.
Tour groups visiting Chongqing are almost certain to be taken to a huo guo or hot-pot restaurant where they get their first taste of this distinctive fare. If your clients have traveled to Asia before, they might first think that they’re going to enjoy the dish that in Japan is called shabu-shabu or pulgogi in Korea.
In both preparations, diners drop meat, usually very thin slices of beef, as well as raw vegetables, into a steaming container of soup stock over a brazier on the center of their table. Given the high heat of the stock, the meat and vegetables cook quickly and are lifted out with chopsticks to be enjoyed.
In a typical Chongqing hot-pot restaurant, guests also sit around a round table with a gas-fired pot steaming in the center. Only in this case, there is a small pot in the center of the apparatus holding the boiling stock. The center dish contains a combination of hot sauces. The guests first drop a succession of vegetables — mushrooms, cabbage and tomatoes, among others — along with noodles, faux crab rolls, fish balls and beef into the stock to cook.
In a few minutes, the cooked ingredients are ladled out. But before dropping the cooked items onto your plate, you are free to dip them into the hot sauce in the center container. Do so at your own risk. Those tiny flecks of red and green peppers can bring tears to your eyes and send you gasping for a glass of water, beer or soft drink. Anything to put out the fire!
“At a hot-pot restaurant, you don’t need a chef to season your food. You do it yourself,” said David Lee, veteran tour guide for Panda Travel USA. “If you haven’t eaten hot pot, you haven’t been in Chongqing.”
While the “hot pot” is the most well known of the Sichuan dishes among foreign visitors, local residents of Chongqing have a wide variety of other options, all distinguished by the presence of those subversive little flecks of peppers and chilies.
A good place to see these is the district of Ciqikou — a wonderfully preserved Song, Ming and Qing Dynasty-style village market area. Here, there is an endless succession of shops and vendors offering handicrafts, toys, sweets, novelties and, as you might expect, plenty of take-away dishes. And these, too, are liberally brushed with or dipped in a spicy sauce. (Even sweet potatoes are prepared with a chili sauce.) Other shops specialize in prepackaged dried items, all distinguished by being, of course, hot and spicy.
You’re in Chongqing, after all. What did you expect?