Sichuan Hotpot

My four and a half year old daughter is from Fuling, in Sichuan province, China. Coincidentally, Sichuan shares climatic similarities to my our hometown of Houston, Texas, despite great differences in topology, and hydrology (?) - river vs. gulf. The summers are oppressively hot and humid (95 degrees average, 50-90% humidity common). The winters are significantly damp, creating an extremely chilling effect. While the temperature rarely is lower than freezing, the moisture in the air and winter winds make up for the low double digit temps.

We adopted Amy via in Chongqing in early February 2004, and experienced all the chill and dampness we could tolerate. One of our greatest comforts was local hotpot cooking. I had heard the phrase 'hotpot' from time to time but never accurately placed it to a specific dish or cooking technique. It's essentially a spicy fondue, using an oily broth and virtually any mix of ingredients.

Hotpot probably carries similarities to American barbecue. While there are fiercely claimed origins, the arguments matter little, as the finished product, in any variation, is all that counts. Hotpot benefits from a better understood origin, and has now flourished across China with the panoply of flavor variations ala the diversity of BBQ.

Hot pot is said to have originated on the banks of the Yangtze in Chongqing, and was widely popularized in the early 20th century. Poor boatmen and fishermen scrounged the dregs of their catch, or whatever they could afford to buy (read offal), and boiled these scraps is in spicy Sichuan oil. Outdoor woks were used over open fires near the riverbanks that they plied.

This workingman's meal traversed the riverbanks and made it's way to the city of Chongqing and beyond, upgrading the contributing ingredients, but not leaving behind it roots of fiery red oil, spiced with many styles of local pepper. The result is a dish that carries the multi-layered and numbing spiciness of Sichuan, ideal for a damp, chilling day. Comparing the Sichuan spiciness to Mexican or Thai, one must think of a tingling sensation, that eventually overtakes the whole body, as opposed to a fiery burn that lives mostly on tongue and throat.

Culinary history lesson ends here. Today was one of the rare deeply chilling days in Houston. 33 degrees when we teed off this morning at 7:44. Yet, we're still thankful that we're not in Jersey or Chicago anymore, at least weatherwise. Blizzards are so much more enjoyable when you watch them two minutes at a time on TWC. Hotpot was a perfect conclusion to our cold day.

Hotpot can be built from scratch, and requires many authentic Sichuan ingredients. While I pretty much have all these ingredients, tonight I used a packaged hotpot mixture that I bought in a Chinese market. We obtained the same brand of hoptpot mix while in Chongqing, so it upped the credibility of this choice. I made a second hoptpot, mild, so that that Alex and Amy would be able to eat it too.

Mild Hotpot:
  • 4-5 C organic or homemade chicken stock
  • 1/4 C onion - chopped
  • 2 chunks fresh ginger - 1" each
  • 3-4 fresh tomato slices
  • 3-4 scallions
  • 1 T sesame oil
Spicy Hotpot
  • 1 package prepared hotpot mix - 200g
  • 4 C water
  • 3-4 fresh tomato slices
In Chongqing, the finer restaurants have hotpots with two concentric bowls, the inner bowl with a mild broth, the outer bowl with spicy broth.

Ingredients - cook in fondue fashion
  • Thinly sliced lamb leg (partly freeze first, to slice paper thin with an electric slicer
  • Chicken strips - 1/4" square, any length
  • Peeled shrimp
  • Squid rings
  • Zucchini
  • Broccoli
  • Potato slices
  • Tofu cubes (firm)
  • Large mushroom wedges
Tonight, Nora preferred the spicy pot rather than the mild. I'm so proud of her. It was not as spicy as Chongqing, but it had a punch.

In Beijing in 2005, Nora and I had hotpot with Nelson and Nancy Lie, their son Tom and a female friend Nora's age. Meat slices were lamb, and the broth was very mild. At the end of the meal, a chef arrived at our table carrying a white blob, similar to bread dough. He proceeded to whack small strips of this dough into our hotpot, using a cleaver-sized flat blade. As the strips warmed in our pot they plumped into the delicious noodles, deeply infused with flavor from the broth that held three or four trays of previously cooked lamb slices.


Anonymous said...

I think one of the keys to Sichuan food is Sichuan peppercorns. They area muted red in color and have a unique taste that some say make the tongue slightly numb or tingly. I had dishes in Beijing where it seemed that a 2 quart bowl of fish stew (for lack of the proper term) had a an eighth to a quarter cup of these peppercorn dumped on the surface. Suffice to say, the dish tasted like pepper, yet was delicious hot and I am craving some now.

Phineas said...

Hey anon. Thanks for the comment.

I've just re-read this post, a year after entering it. While I'm glad that the story is detailed, it under-emphasizes the recipe a bit.

I agree about Sichuan peppercorns. In the meal I described here, I happened to take a shortcut and use a packaged mix. The packaged hotpot mixes most definitely use Sichuan peppercorns and most will have whole peppercorns, though not all. Even the packaged mixes are pretty much found only in ethnic markets.

I've made hotpot from scratch, and indeed, the peppercorns are a key ingredient.

You mentioned "some say......numb and tingly". Well, they definitely will create numbing and tingling, as long as sufficient quantity and quality are involved. Most any dish I've eaten in Sichuan will generate this effect, as well as dishes I've made at home using the peppercorn.

Short story is that Sichuan peppercorns are again available in US ethnic and specialty markets. I've got a longer story that's somewhat humorous about Sichuan peppercorns and US Customs. I'll share sometime soon.

I'm told that local Sichuanese will chew a peppercorn for an hour or so, and continue with new peppercorns throughout the day. I've tried it and it will give you a numbing tingle. I'm also told that they are somewhat addictive. While I've not experience an addiction along the lines of golf, poker or other vices, I will say that I CRAVE them routinely and can see how true addiction could develop.

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