By Parker Walker, iChongqing
Chongqing- “Five masters under heaven” is a common theme in Chinese Martial Arts Fantasy Author Jin Yong’s novels. In Jin Yong’s universe, each of the five cardinal directions in ancient China (north, south, east, west, and center) are represented by an unparalleled master of a school of martial arts.
And so it is with Chongqing’s most distinctive and famous food – hot pot. Hotpot sprung out of the alleys and streets of dockside Chongqing and soon spread to all corners of China, creating a new legend in the universe of Chinese cuisine with its own “seven masters”: numb, spice, freshness, savory, presentation, flavor, and honor. Let’s take a closer look at these seven indispensable elements upon which every hotpot under heaven is judged.
The numbness in Chongqing hotpot comes from the Szechuan Peppercorn, a type of unique seasoning that goes by many names, none of which are common in the west. Most westerners haven’t heard of this small, curious seed, but as soon as the taste it, they will immediately feel a numbing, fresh flavor that defies description.
We can also find some oblique and mysterious references to the Szechuan Peppercorn in the annals of Chinese history. The ancient Book of Poems (shijing) states: “the seeds of the peppercorn tree flourishes – enough to fill many baskets” while The Ode to the West, written more than 2000 years ago, says that “in the harams of the emperor, the peppercorn trees flourished. The trees were meant to symbolize the birth of many sons lasting eternally into posterity.
The numbing peppers are grown throughout Chongqing and are a necessary ingredient to hotpot. Together with the hot peppers, the numbing flavor of the peppercorn brings out and magnifies the spice, creating an intense blend of intoxicating excitement in your mouth. The Chines also believe that the numbness and spiciness combined can drive out the “cold” in the body that causes illnesses and protect it from pain.
Spice, of course, comes from spicy peppers. Peppers aren’t native to China but were brought over in the 16th century from Central and South America, where they originated. In the beginning, the peppers were actually just ornamental and were used for viewing and decoration. Not so in Chongqing, where the peppers were put into immediate use. By the high Qing (around 300 years ago), the peppers were recorded by literati as being used in Sichuan hotpot (Chongqing was once part of Sichuan) as being “hot broth, numb and fresh with an intense flavor that never gets old”.
Freshness, of course, comes from the preparation of the food itself, and determines its quality. In Chongqing hotpot, having fresh ingredients that go into the pot is an important part of the overall quality of the flavor, and is highly regarded by Chongqing locals. This can be seen from the fact that the locals all know by heart the amount it takes to cook the food that goes in the steaming broth to the maximum amount of freshness without being overcooked. 8 seconds for tripe, 12 seconds for duck intestines…you get the point!
“Savory”, “flavorful” or “aroma” is a word that is difficult to translate into English, but basically encompasses the flavor palate that is made of up the multitude of spices that go into hotpot. For example, douban (a paste mixture of hot spices), sannai, star anise, cinnamon, geranium, and so on. Picture a pot full of spicy broth, mixed with dozens of seasonings and spices, put on a fire, slow cooking (or fast cooking) your fresh duck intestines to perfection! The savory aroma from a hotpot place fills the streets and corners of Chongqing and is enough to get your mouth watering!
The oil used in the spicy broth of Chongqing hotpot is made from beef fat, which adds a shiny, smooth and hearty texture to the broth, combined with the pungent flavor of the spices and peppers, create an appearance that can be likened to smooth red satin, firing up the taste buds of all who see it!
The flavor here means not only the actual flavor of the hotpot but the “flavor” of hotpot and the daily lives of the people in Chongqing. There is a saying here: “there isn’t anything that can’t be solved over a hotpot, if not one, then two!” A steaming, bubbling cauldron of spicy broth, surrounded by a couple of your best friends, in a soggy-cold winter’s day Is enough to warm your heart and raise the spirits.
Hotpot is the most distinctive and famous food in Chongqing
Chongqing hotpot came to being in the back-alleys of Chongqing and on the backs of the dockworkers and laborers who toiled, scraping by to make a living. Owing to these humble roots, as well as the gangs and collectives that formed to help one another, hotpot isn’t only a meal, it’s a lifestyle It is ride or dies with the people who you depend on. Chongqing people say that “a person from Chongqing is like a hotpot; fiery, direct, in-your-face, fresh, strong, and honest.” It is someone that you should be able to depend on.
Hotpot isn’t the only hot pot, but a way of life here. The blood that runs through people in Chongqing is red – red like the fiery broth of the food they most love.