Chongqing is famous throughout China for its "Three Hots": hot girls, hot weather and hot food. The girls? Pretty for sure, but perhaps no prettier than elsewhere in China. The weather? Shorter summers of late have made a sweater a better value than a short-sleeved shirt. But the food? Yes, the food is hot. Very hot. A good way to prepare for the experience of Chongqing cookery is to swig Tabasco sauce while chewing Sichuan peppercorns. When you can do this with a happy smile, you're ready.
Chongqing food is so spicy that restaurants are used to toning dishes down for non-locals. The essential phrase here is "I don't want chili," ("bu yao lajiao," 不要辣椒). If you plan on being here a month or more, have it printed on a shirt. A year or more, have it tattooed on your forehead. You will still get chili – the rule in Chongqing often seems to be "No chili, no food," but cooks will at least reduce the quantity of peppers.
Chongqing’s flagship dish is hotpot (huoguo, 火锅). Hotpot in Chongqing is not so much a meal as an institution. In the centre of a table in a hotpot restaurant a fire is lit and a large cauldron split into two halves is placed on top. In one half of the pot, a chicken broth-based liquid boils away – thankfully not too spicy – while the other half of the pot contains a red, bubbling, liquid hell for which Chongqing is famed.
Diners add to these broths from a selection of side plates; raw vegetables, thinly-sliced raw meats, mushrooms, fish, small personal items the owner wants stripped of paint; anything may be added to the brew. Hotpot is a communal event where diners gather together with friends, family or business associates to cook a meal, eat, drink and socialise in a manner similar to that of a Western barbecue.
Known as "numb and spicy," ("ma la," 麻辣), Chongqing hotpot is famed over and above all other regional variations in China. It is such an important Chongqing dish that you will not be able to avoid it entirely. You can guarantee that new acquaintances will introduce the topic within the first few sentences of meeting you and if you make the mistake of saying you haven’t tried it before you will be instantly kidnapped and dragged off to the nearest emporium for initiation.
Two important warnings when it comes to this bizarre local fire-breathing beast. First, scandals have arisen around the recycling of the oils used in hotpot and for that reason some of the cheaper emporia are perhaps best avoided. With re-use there's a buildup of heavy metals and other unpleasant ingredients that are introduced as a byproduct of the cooking process. Second, it is said that some purveyors add opium pods to the bubbling mix, though this once common practice is now strictly illegal. However, it would explain the rheumy-eyed foreign advocates of the dish who can't seem to get enough of it, singing its virtues through cracked lips. These hotpot-evangelical foreigners are to be avoided; they're more fanatic than the locals.
If you're someone who believes in eating quickly and getting out, or if you happen to believe that when you go to a restaurant you're paying for someone else to do the cooking and don't want to do it yourself, perhaps hotpot isn't for you. You should try it at least once – indeed, you will probably have no choice in the matter should you come to Chongqing – and then take it from there. Good luck.
Chongqing "big-headed fish"
Naturally, hotpot isn't the only Chongqing specialty dish, but it makes such a great deal of noise that others tend to go forgotten to the extent that you'd be forgiven for thinking Chongqing's citizens survive on hotpot alone.
Chongqing is situated on the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers and the fish here, as you might expect, find their way to the plate. Jiangtuan fish – known as the big-headed fish because, well... it has a big head – is the local specialty. This strange creature which, once steamed, looks up quizzically at you from the plate, has relatively few and tender bones, a blessing for those of us who prefer not to undertake thumb-and-forefinger exploration into every mouthful. The meat itself is pink and relatively free of greasy oils. The usual warning applies with Chongqing’s freshwater fish, however. Neither the Yangtze nor the Jialing rivers are particularly clean and their fish should be sampled sparingly for fear of what pollutants may have found their way into the meat.
Chongqing spicy chicken and dandan noodles
Chongqing spicy chicken (重庆辣子鸡, Chongqing lazi ji) falls halfway between a snack and a meal and yes, chili and peppercorns are there once more to make eating it something of a trial. However, if you can get enough of a mouthful of the meat beneath the surface layer, then the spices do bring out the flavour of the chicken to good effect rather than replacing it altogether.
No city in China – in the south, at least – would be complete without its resident noodle dish and Chongqing’s is dandan noodles, (担担面, dandan mian). The sauce, as you would expect, is spiced with chili oil and pepper and yes, it is hot. It’s best to have a glass of water on hand. The same sauce may also be found in local chicken dishes and in some of the spicier meat-filled local dumplings.
Chongqing’s sweeter side
For something sweeter, seek out Xiangshan honey cake, (香山蜂蜜蛋糕, Xiangshan fengmi dangao), a crisp and gentle snack when your tongue is tired of being mugged and wants to be pampered a little.
Beyond these local delicacies, Chongqing has all the variety you’d expect from a Chinese city but beware: choose your dishes carefully to avoid the chili-and-peppercorn assault.
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