The name should have been enough…
We REALLY like spicy food, we have a jar of Thai hot peppers in fish sauce in the refrigerator at home, we ate our way through Thailand… but this took us to a new level.
We arrived in Chengdu by the new high-speed bullet train, it just opened a few months ago and takes you through the mountains by way of a bunch of tunnels. We got off the train and even before arriving at our hotel we headed off to dinner.
We were staying in the Hi-Tech Center area of Chengdu, clean, well designed, lots of skyscrapers and lots of young techies.
We arrived at a multistory complex of what looked like restaurants. On the way in you pass a large plaza, which seemed to be the norm for most areas like this. it was filled with families watching their little kids learn to rollerblade as well as adults dancing.
The restaurant row off to the side was store after store of the same thing, they all seemed to feature Sichuan Hot Pot. Some featured crayfish in hot pots, others had a more traditional hot pot like we would have and some had skewers of food you put into your broth.
We were all ushered into the outdoor space of a restaurant filled with square tables with a large divided hot pot int the center of each table; surrounded by wooden benches. They keep the tables low so you have to lean over for your food.
Fortunately, we had a couple from California at our table with their 13-year-old daughter so we only had 7; giving us a little more space but it was still tight.
The hot pot in the middle was divided into three sections – spicy with Sichuan peppercorns and chilis (there is a HUGE difference), mushroom broth and tomato broth. Chuck and I got the side with the hot oil as most of the others had a much lower tolerance for spice.
The tables were set with sliced watermelon (we assume for cooling), as well as bowls of green onion, garlic, and cilantro; as well as a small clear pull top can. We later found out that the container was sesame oil, which you poured into a bowl and added the garlic and fresh herbs to act as a cooling dipping sauce.
Our guide brought us over some crispy, slightly sweet fried crisps… we could have eaten a dozen more.
Shortly after that, the servers started bringing us platters of sliced, beef, pork, and lamb, hard-boiled quail eggs, sliced lotus root, imitation crab, sliced potato, pork belly and frozen tofu (to keep it from falling apart). Obviously, the table was getting crowded, but they kept bringing more and more.
Then they cranked up the liquid. The control knob was right next to me so it was my job to control the heat. Because of the oil content, the Sichuan peppercorn boiled first but you had to keep it from boiling over and yet have the others hot enough to cook everything.
You put the hard stuff – lotus root, and potatoes in first and then added the others making sure the meats didn’t have any pink left. Medium Rare doesn’t seem to be a thing there. You tended to your own, yet sharing with the others.
We didn’t get to the mild broth as we were too numb from the Sichuan peppercorns to be able to taste anything so why bother changing.
Sichuan cooking has multiple layers to it – it typically has peppercorns which add a beautiful floral note to it but also a numbing that you feel on the tip of your tongue and lips, the dried red chilis which add some heat, we also found some fresh chilis (usually green) added to some dishes and then things like garlic, ginger, and some herbs. It was truly delicious.
As our side kept boiling hard before the other sides could cook, Chuck and I both got hot pot facials. It definitely opened up the sinuses.
It was quite an adventure!