Editor’s Note: This article is produced in collaboration with the Chongqing Institute of Foreign Studies as part of a series of ongoing reports exploring the city’s abundant resources in intangible cultural heritages.
Standing at the entrance of an alley, one could smell the aroma of wine or the fragrance of hot pot. In the old streets of Ciqikou, a chef stirs the bubbling red chili oil with a large scoop. The fragrant aroma draws the passing tourists to stop and watch. Nowadays, the making of hotpot condiments has been elevated from practical effort to artistic celebration. Subsequently, a unique hot pot culture takes shape at the junction of the Jialing River and the Yangtze River, where wharf culture derives from.
Originating in the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties (1600-1644) as a humble fare for boatmen and trackers on the banks of the Jialing River and Chaotianmen Wharf, hot pot has become a unique symbol of this mountain city throughout the centuries. While the hot pot is adored by many, its traditional making technique is under threat and is gradually being lost in the industrialized mass production process. Therefore, applying Chongqing hot pot to the list of world heritage aims to protect not only the traditional frying process and techniques, hot pot utensils, and the way of eating hot pot but also the “original aspiration” to pass on hot pot culture.
A cheap and tasty hot pot provided boat trackers with quick energy, thereby driving the economic development of Chongqing from the Mid-Qing Dynasty (1736-1850) to the Republican period (1912-1949), with rest time shortened and working hours extended. Chongqing is humid because it is surrounded by two rivers, so the locals eat hot pot to dispel cold and keep warm. Chongqing is a viral online sensation that has become the most popular city for tourists. Here, they can experience the enthusiasm of Chongqing people by tasting hot pots, which represent locals’ eating habits, settle the spirits of each generation, and play an integral role in the city’s development.
Hot pot in Chongqing is all about the flavor of the spicy soup base. A non-authentic sauce will ruin even the tastiest ingredient, so the most crucial step is to fry the beef tallow-based seasoning. The traditional skill of stir-frying is a fortune handed down from our ancestors, and with the innovation of contemporary tastes, different ingredients are added to modulate the flavor. However, as a rule, the spiciness and deliciousness will not be changed; so many spices that enhance the aroma become the essence of the traditional base seasoning.
The key to traditional stir-frying is the process. Order, heating, and timing are all very significant. In general, every shop taking Chongqing hot pot as its specialty has more or less changed the traditional ingredients to create a unique flavor, which is the only way to preserve the hot pot culture.
There are various hot pot utensils, such as pot-in-pot and two-flavor pots. The Jiugongge pot is the most typical of them all. In the early days, diners from all over the country often sat at the same square table and shared one hot pot, which was inevitably a little awkward. To solve this problem, the shop owner added nine grids to the hot pot, two grids for each diner. Customers were then charged according to the number of grids, saving the owner the trouble of counting money. In this way, hot pots became more hygienic and affordable. Although the Jiugongge hot pot shares the same soup base, each grid is suitable for different ingredients. Though the bottom of the nine grids is connected, the heating temperatures vary, and the oil layer on top of each grid is isolated, which created the saying “different heat on the same fire, the soup flows but the oil stays.”
In this diversified world, multiple hot pot types have emerged, such as Haidilao hot pot with excellent service and Thai hot pot with exotic flavor. But only when you stroll Chongqing’s streets, where a variety of hot pot awaits their loyal customers, will you realize that Chongqing hot pot is second to none.
Chinese script: Ma Yiling
Tutored by: Tang Ruohan
Translation: Tan Meiling
Tutored by: Lu Siying, Hu Wei, Ren Yi
Voice-over: Pu Zuoli
Tutored by: Xing Dandan