Written by and photography by Wang Yuanchang
Based in Southwest China, Chongqing is one of the four directly controlled municipalities of the People’s Republic of China (the others being Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin), with a population in excess of 28 million over an area almost eight times that of Qatar. It serves as the economic centre of the upstream Yangtze area, but facts and figures aside, there is something the city is famed for: the spicy hot pot.
Anyone who pays a visit to China will see hot pot available in almost every corner of the country. Essentially it’s a simple stew, consisting of a simmering pot of stock at the centre of the table to which ingredients such as wontons, dumplings, vegetables, and sliced meats are added and cooked fresh, while to the side are a number of delicious dipping sauces. What distinguishes Chongqing’s hot pot (and the Sichuan hot pot) is the inclusion of a sizzling spice called hua jiao, or ‘flower pepper’.
The hot pot vessel itself has been around for thousands of years. During the period of the Three Kingdoms (AD 220–280) bronze vessels were divided into sections, each for boiling different kinds of foods. The yuanyang(‘mandarin duck’) pots were separated into two parts, with an S-shaped bronze plate dividing the centre. On one side the broth is more spicy, or simply a different flavour, than the other. Hot pot today tends to have just one central stock, though there are some eateries where a number of smaller hot pots are served.
With the hot pot a symbol of national pride, two cities in particular have fought for the accolade as the birthplace of the dish. Chongqing and Chengdu (some 320km to the southeast) ‘fought’ over the laurel until the China Cuisine Association (CCA) conducted a three-month appraisal and granted Chongqing municipality the honour of ‘Chinese Center of Hot Pot’ on March 20, 2007. It is unprecedented to name a city for a food, but Chongqing wears the title well.
Finding somewhere to savour the flavours is no problem, as there is a vast number of hot pot restaurants – over 50,000 throughout the municipality, and more than 3,000 outlets nationwide. According to research conducted in 2006, Chongqing had a total of 80,500 restaurants, 60% of which were hot pot eating places. Hot pot chain restaurants can also be found the world over: seek out the well-known ‘Little Swan’, ‘Qin Ma’,
My friend and I chose a restaurant near Jiefang Monument, an area where a plethora of name-brand and time-honoured hot pot restaurants are concentrated. Inside and outside, the restaurants were crowded with customers. “Is it allowed to put tables on the street?” I was curious to ask. “Only this area is allowed,” my friend explained. Customers were sitting around in the open air; broths were bubbling and sizzling in the pots, and the side dishes and sauces kept coming.
You can get almost any food imaginable with the hot pot – fresh meat and vegetables are the staples, to which you can add ribbon fish, kidney slices, mushrooms, mutton, sweet potato, tofu, chicken, duck, and a host of beguiling local delicacies. The broth is made from fermented soybeans, red peppers, chillies, black beans, ginger, shallot, salt, sugar, rice wine, and generally served as a choice of ‘red’, ‘red and white’, ‘seafood’, ‘medicated’, and ‘sour and spicy’.
The accompanying seasonings include olive oil with smashed tea leaves, garlic and egg white, sesame oil, peanut oil, and more. A chef tells me a hot pot can be made of nearly 100 finely balanced ingredients. The spice in the local hot pot doesn’t just add flavour. Pepper is widely known to be rich in vitamins A, C, and K, which help prevent cell damage, are good for the skin and digestion, and said to reduce inflammation of the type encountered in arthritis and asthma. All of I sudden, I realise why people here eat it all year long, even in the hot summer months when temperatures reach 27˚C.
Aside from the hot pot, there are other must-savour foods to enjoy in this part of China. Try Smoked Tea Duck, Braised Duck with Beer, Grilled Duck with Toasted Bread, Tofu Fish, Wujiang Fish, Loofah Slices, Snowflake Cake, and Tangyuan (glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet fillings).
For a quintessential experience, head to the docks and eat aboard one of the ferries that also serve as floating restaurants. While you savour the food, the city unfolds in a stream of neon and skyscrapers, which are reflected in the fast-flowing river.
We disembark at Nanbin Road, a bustling tourist area filled with handicraft stores, tea houses, shops of every kind, street food, and even a pretty flower market. I feel as if I am walking in the Bund area of Shanghai, or rambling over Victoria Bay in Hong Kong. But the dialect hauls me back to this historic city and its iconic cuisine.
A PLACE IN HISTORY
Chongqing, the biggest inland river port in western China, is situated at the confluence of the great Yangtze River and the sinuous Jialing River. The Jialing bends so much that it traverses 600km between Zhangwang Miao and Longdongtuo even though the towns are only 200km apart when measured in a straight line.
The Jialing River was originally called Yushui, and Chongqing is called ‘Yu’ for short. Chongqing itself was once the capital of the Ba kingdom (until 316 BC), with the Chinese character ‘Ba’ pictographically represented by a snake. ‘Ba’ and ‘Yu’ combine to form ‘Bayu’, an historically important and influential time in Chinese cultural civilisation, with Chongqing at its epicentre.
Today, Bayu culture exists mainly in the form of dance and song. A visit to the Bayu Folk-Custom Culture Village, with its white-washed bamboo fences and thatched-roofed cottages, 21km from the airport, offers an insight into this culture
In its approximately 3,000 years of history, Chongqing has been a capital city three times:
Capital of Ba Kingdom: In 1066 BC during the Zhou Dynasty.
Capital of Xia Kingdom: In 1363, General Ming Yuzhen’s peasant rebel army overpowered the Yuan Court in Sichuan, with Ming proclaiming himself emperor of the Xia Kingdom.
Secondary capital of the Republic of China:In 1937, when the Sino-Japanese War erupted, the national government moved to Chongqing, and later made Chongqing the secondary capital.
The Dazu Grottoes, originating from the Tang Dynasty (AD 650), and listed as World Cultural Heritage Sites by UNESCO, are located 163km away in Dazu. They comprise more than 50,000 well-kept colourful rock carvings and 100,000 characters of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.
Ciqikou, an ancient town 14km away to the west, on the west bank of Jialing River, has 12 streets with Ming and Ding architecture on both sides. It is a good place to trace history and find exquisite handicrafts.
On a sunny day enjoy the huge Three Gorges Museum, which reveals the culture and civilization of the basin of Yangtze River, stretching back over two million years.