When the sun drowned into the horizon and darkness cloaked, it was just another ordinary evening in Chengdu. Yet, every hotpot restaurant seem to occupy each door front and street vendors, with tiny billboards showing its location while dozens of people were waiting in a line for a table to have a taste of the hotpot. When entering to one of them, we were swiftly greeted by a mist of hot stream with pungent smell of red chili. On our table, the pot of chili oil, rushing l a fountain, was turning into a bubbling soup of spreading hua jiao (花椒) peppers – a mouth-numbing spice from the western mountains of Sichuan.
The whole street was bustling with waiters scurrying out, passing baskets of bamboo shoots, cabbage and raw meat. Inside, everyone was adding a plate of cucumbers, waiting impatiently and scraping the cooked food from the simmering pot in the centre. Eyes sparkled with excitement as the hungry people were dripping the meatballs, cheese sausages and slices of raw beef into the simmering pot that was divided into half spicy and half clear broth, then stirring them with care. At the farther side of the corner, a deafening roar of tens of Sichuanese calling for more icy drink stood out. Equally delightful when a group of us exchanging cries of ganbei (“cheers” in Mandarin Chinese) for welcoming me and my schoolmates, the newcomers who were visiting their home city.
Bright lights shone down on the grid iron pots that were hissing loudly. The red surface began to bubble furiously through a thick layer of red chili oil, with dense peppers and a hint of spices at the bottom. Our group began to place the dipping sauce besides each of us and stir the oil among the smoldering burn of dried chilies and citrus-scented hua jiao. Originated in Chongqing (once a part of Sichuan province, but split into 1990s), Sichuan hotpot, with various types of sauce in the soup base, is famous for its Mala (麻辣) flavour, a unique numbing feel. It is a popular belief that, with lingering precipitation and damp weather condition in Sichuan basin, the spread of chili peppers and hua jiao help drive away excess moisture from the body and balance out our body temperature for better blood circulation.
While the fire danced under the pot, the heavily flavoured broth was boiling in rivers of chili oil with foggy steam. When I first drummed up the courage, and licked the red soup off of my chopsticks, however, the chilies gave the soup a fiery burn, while the flower peppers had an odd numbing effect on the tongue that made me wrinkle my nose and cough. After having a small bite of a meatball, my numb tongue kept burning for a long time, as if the spiciness was going to increase its magnitude and explode like fire. Unable to tolerate such degree of numbness, what I could do was immediately grasped slices of watermelon and glasses of orange juice to cool myself down. Despite the presence of dipping sauce that included a selection of seasoning like sesame oil and oyster sauce, those spiciness from the pot still lingered.
Sichuan food is generally renowned for being spicy, oily and consisted of numerous hot hua jiao, this traditional hotpot is not an exception. If you would like to challenge your taste buds, or have a brave taste of heavy blench of seasonings at the evening, Sichuan hotpot, with fiery spices found in abundance in the province, will be a good option for you. ♦
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