Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Sichuan Hot Pot

Beibei is administratively part of the municipality of Chongqing. This municipality, like Washington, D.C., is a federal entity that is independent of any provincial government. There are currently four such municipalities in China, Beijing and Shanghai being two of the better known ones. Prior to the creation of the municipality of Chongqing, Beibei was part of the province (c.f., state) of Sichuan.

In ancient times, most of the economic and political development of China was located in western valleys of the two main river systems in China—the Yellow (in the north) and the Yangtze (in the south). Sichuan is located in the heart of the Yangtze River basin which is similar to our Mississippi river basin except it flows in a west to east direction instead of north to south. Shanghai, a major international port, is at the mouth of the Yangtze and is analogous to New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Sichuan is a vast region that is traditionally rural and agricultural. With industrialization, the economic centers of the country have sifted from the western agrarian regions of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers to the eastern, coastal metropolitan areas that are closer to international markets. Much of the early history of China is of conflict between the north and south (the two river basins); much of the history of the past century has been between the east (industrial) and west (agrarian). With these economic changes, Sichuan has become one of the poorest regions of China, not unlike the upper reaches of the Mississippi River valley in eastern Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

As with any large country, China has very significant regional differences in dialect, customs, and cuisine. When Americans think about southern cuisine they think about grits, corn bread, and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. When Chinese think about Sichuan cuisine, they think about “hot pot”, and with good reason. Hot pot does not refer to a dish or type of dish, but instead to an eating format or style. Many restaurants in Beibei are hot pot. If you go to a hot pot restaurant, you will eat hot pot style. In many ways, hot pot is similar to fondue in the U.S. A large caldron, usually filled with oil, is placed over a burner at the table and raw ingredients are brought to the table. The customer, at his or her leisure, puts the ingredients into the oil to cook. When cooked, you haul the food out with your chopsticks and eat it. There is no limit as to what ingredients you may put into the hot pot. All sorts of meat are common, including fish. Veggies are also common ingredients in hot pot. These range from chunks of turnips, beans, squashes, greens, and even lettuce.

A typical “pot” is a wok shaped steel bowl that is about 18 inches in diameter with two or three quarts of liquid in it. The contents of the hot pot vary from restaurant to restaurant and customer to customer. The most basic hot pot is just a pot of oil. More common is oil with some added goodies such as a celery stalk and onions to impart some flavor to the oil. One place we visited tossed a few ham hocks into the oil that initially added some nice pork fat to the oil and by the end of the meal yielded some pretty good pieces of well cooked pork. The regional favorite is to add some peppers and spices to the oil such that everything that comes out of the pot is hot and spicy—this is really good and is the most “typical” variety of hot pot. For those not inclined to so much oil, you can also do hot pot with chicken or beef stock. With any of the above foundations in the pot, the choice of what to cook is up to the customer.

Hot pot as an eating style is a leisurely endeavor. The heat from the pot not only cooks the food, it also warms up the customers. Up-scale hot pot restaurants are air conditioned, but the locals seem to prefer open air hot pots. With the hot air and hot (and frequently spicy) food, great quantities of beverage are normally consumed with hot pot.

Hot pot is usually a social occasion. It is not something for the casual customer just looking for a quick, easy meal. Many hot pot restaurants are up-scale places where you might have a wedding reception or a similar large party. In Beibei, most up-scale restaurants are exclusively hot pot restaurants. You pay a flat rate for the pot (depending on size and contents) with an additional charge for each ingredient added to the pot. The extras are ordered and brought to the table throughout the meal. A hot pot for four in the student ghetto starts at about $1.00 per person for the pot. Elegant hot pots start at the $4.00 per person range and can go much higher. Everything in between is available.

Should you visit Beibei, your hosts will invariably take you to a hot pot meal. For the timid, it is possible to order a split hot pot in which one part has just oil and the other part has oil with peppers, and spices. One of my local friends here calls this arrangement “husband and wife” hot pot.

Some American students who are studying at Southwest University report that there is a hot pot restaurant in the Minneapolis area. There may be some others in major metropolitan areas around the country. If you want a leisurely, interesting dining experience I encourage you to try out a hot pot.


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