GASTRIC AROMATHERAPY / THE HOTPOT
If John Denver was in China singing, “You fill up my senses…” I bet he would be sitting around a hotpot table, relishing the gush of herbal aromas. And if you - a visitor, a foreigner, a first timer - would be at the hotpot table, I bet you’d want to close your eyes, pull up your chin, relax your shoulders and bask in the fragrance that’s impossible to miss. I know that’s what I did when I popped my hotpot cherry. It was a cold winter evening. I had been in China only two days and I had nothing much to do. Shivering indoors (given the poor heating systems here), famished and craving something fiery and hot to balance my body temperature, my husband suggested that we go for some traditional Sichuan food:‘ the hotpot’. To me, a hotpot sounded more like a clay pot with rice, vegetables and meat cooked with Chinese flavours. Umm… okay, I thought, not particularly exciting but at least it was going to be ‘hot’ - and that was the most important thing at that point. Although the restaurant was situated on the 2nd floor I could smell the aroma as soon as we got out of the taxi upon arrival (no exaggeration here). And boy, did it smell heavenly! I wanted to rush upstairs, partly because it was so cold outside and partly because the fragrance was so inviting. So that’s exactly what I did.The restaurant was pretty fancy looking (a tad too gaudy for my taste) and we even had an escort show us to our table and make sure we were seated comfortably.The first thing I noticed when sitting down was a large round perforation in the centre of the table, complete with a gas stove below. This created quite a bit of suspense. Next we were handed two over-sized menus with oversized pictures on them. There were different types of pots to choose from; red and white ‘half’ n’ half ’pots; pots filled with white soup and huge pork bones; pots with mutton chops - and so on. I obviously had no idea what to order, so I let my partner do all the work seeing as though he had already lived in China for three years. When our pot arrived, a huge one, it was clear that we would be eating some largerthan-life kind of food here.The pot had a partition and one side was filled with a red hot spicy soup (la de) full of chilies and Chinese spices and the other side was filled with a white non-spicy (bu la de) soup, garnished with garlic, spring onion, ginger and some weird looking roots that actually smelt very good indeed.To go along with the hotpot we had some raw vegetables, meat, tofu and rice-cakes. I was a little disappointed when I realised we had to cook for ourselves, as I was too hungry to possess any kind of patience, but cook I did and, aside from a partially burnt tongue (due to periodic lapses in patience), the whole experience was pretty rewarding. Very rewarding in fact. So rewarding that I begged and pleaded with my husband to take me back for the next four evenings in a row! If I were asked to describe hotpot in two words, it would be “gastric aromatherapy” as it’s a real treat for all five of your senses - and your tummy too. It’s a win-win food with only a few small cons I can think of - you have a high chance of returning home with a burnt tongue; and no matter how much you eat, you’ll probably be hungry again in two hours. So my advice is this: go slow; go late; and hit the sacks as soon as you get home. At least that works for me!