If you’re just a little into global cuisine, you’ll know that Chinese food in Britain has become more regionally focused over the last decade or so. So now it’s not ‘Chinese’ you’re heading out for, but ‘Hunanese’ or ‘Cantonese’; your specials aren’t categorised according to a set of numbers on a menu, rather it’s whether they’re from Shanghai, Guizhou or Sichuan.
It’s arguably that latter cuisine – Sichuan – that’s most prevalent. I’m sure it’s the most written about and referenced.
The fame of Sichuan food is quite probably down to the food writer and restaurant consultant Fuchsia Dunlop. Certainly, her work is the reason why, when my friends said they were off to live in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, I said “I’ll see you there”.
Which leads me to five days in Chengdu back in November. Challenging, tongue numbing and spicy are probably the operative words.
This isn’t a pretty tourist city, people. There’s no old world romance here. Just miles and miles of densely built, smog covered high rise buildings. It’s China’s fourth most populous city, with fourteen million inhabitants, the world’s largest freestanding building, and a bunch of pandas living and breeding on borrowed time. I suspect (hope) that the best of the province is outside the urban area. We didn’t get a chance to venture that far. But we did eat.
Highlights include being mesmerised by a total dude hand pulling noodles for four of us, before his mother turned them into four brilliant plates for about £1 each.
They also include an almost constant fizzing and numb tongue on account of the pink and green Sichuan peppercorns in pretty much everything I ate. Including this unexpected and untitled set of ‘mild’ (not mild) thin bony eel dishes is a random courtyard off a random street. (Good travel writer, aren’t I?).
And they very definitely include Hot Pot.
Did we sit down to three or four Hot Pots over the five days? I can’t remember. The best of them was at an entirely functional, non flashy or touristy place called Four Seasons Hot Pot on Tongzilin East Road. I give you the name because I have it written down. But I guess there are hundreds of others just as good. Seek them out – I can confirm that a Hot Pot for locals like this will knock the socks of a clinical hotel or tourist experience you might get shepherded to.
Unusually, I took some contemporaneous notes on my phone as we ate. Here they are:
Large, busy basement room. There’s a definite hum – noise and smell.
Central cold space with boxes and boxes of ingredients. A little bit of prime meats. A lot of offal – brain, tripe. Lots of green vegetables, large selection of mushrooms. Fish. Fish balls. Weird thin eels. More offal – intestines, duck tongue, question mark?
Led to table with empty hot pot in middle. Coats and jumpers off and put under a sheath on the chair. The smell and fat lingers. Asked whether hot or mild ‘pot’. Others ask for a mild area in the middle of hot. Weak.
Walk round centre station. Pick things to drop in: whole fish, net like mushrooms that look like tripe, tripe, friends keen on lotus root, tofu skin. Some meat. Other’s reluctantly accept my selection of a brace of pig’s brain. Weak.
Back at table pot now full of golden, meaty, silky stock is bubbling. Many, many chillies and peppercorns bouncing around. Before sit down, fill dipping bowl from buffet – selection of sauces, vinegars, oil, nuts, fresh herbs. Sort of wish this was prescribed – FOMO.
Cook items in hot pot prompted by staff re what to put in first (on the whole, longest to cook first). First bits and pieces. Nice. Oil soaked. Not that hot. What’s the big deal? Weak.
Ahhhhh. Stock gets hotter as chillies infuse. Ever increasing fragrance from peppercorns. Tongue buzzing, lips numb. Citrus and floral notes.
Net-like mushrooms awesome. Soak flavour, soften, hold liquid but maintain structure.
Tofu skin like hard version of mushrooms. Brilliant. Watching out for rogue peppercorns now. Others occasionally dip into mild mushroom stock in middle. So weak …
Shit. Getting feisty. Sweating. Slightly jealous of others. Show no pain.
Raw thin beef takes one or two seconds. Lotus roots worth waiting for. Love dipping in side bowl.
Picking around now. Getting full. What’s that?
Oh God. A whole branch of floral peppers.
I dan’t deel dy dongue. Water?
Mmm. More tofu skin.
Just brain left. What? I have to have a whole one by myself. Bollocks. Wibble. Creamy. Visceral. Good, but last lobe a bit of an effort. Show no pain.
Sweating. Really spicy now. Done, but can’t stop picking.
Fearful of loo tomorrow.
So there you go. Hot Pot in Chengdu. Recommended. Just avoid the peppercorns and pretend you’re enjoying every minute of it.
Okay, fine. Here’s a picture of a panda wishing there was something to eat other than bamboo.
Four Seasons Hot Pot in 3 words
Numbing. Spicy. Addictive.
Can’t remember. c. £25 pp with beers?
Four Seasons Hot Pot – Tongzilin E, Wuhou, Chengdu, 610041