Sichuan Hot Pot, or the Night My Mouth Burst Into Flames.
“Hot Pot” is best described as a boiling broth of chilis, Sichuan peppers and God knows what else calculated to fry your intestines. Into the center of the table, over a fire, is set a bowl. Ingredients of your choice—beef, pork, mushrooms, vegetables—are dropped into the broth for a few minutes and cooked. You drag the fiery ingredient out of the pot, into your rice bowl and, ultimately, into your poor, unsuspecting mouth. I’d been scheming to try Hot Pot since I first read of it in the books and waited until ChengDu, one of the acknowledged Hot Pot destinations, to try it. As we entered the restaurant, the locals stared and smirked more than usual, eager to watch us get red-faced and uncomfortable. A group of young Germans were just leaving and recommended we try the so-called “blander” broth.
I was having none of that. I'd rather put on a skirt than show weakness where spicy food is concerned. Plus, I knew there’d be plenty of TsingTao to extinguish any fires. In the spirit of a culinary Hemingway, I ordered the spiciest broth. Heather felt powerless to argue. She suspected, I believe, that we were getting in over our head. But she knew also that I’d been moony-eyed over this whole Hot Pot concept since Beijing, and there was no point in trying to talk me down.
The pot was set down, red and angry as a tantrum and quickly began to boil. (You can see it in the center of the picture.) I tentatively dropped in some mushrooms and lotus root. Our waitress hovered, in case we needed some kind of emergency resuscitation. I fished out a mushroom and took a bite. WOW. My lips were seared and started to go numb. But not numb enough. I turned red and began to sweat. I felt dizzy.
It never got to the point of CPR, but about two bites in Heather put down her chopsticks and cried Uncle. I toiled through everything we ordered, but only barely.