We got off the bus at some shithole bus station in a grim city that felt about two decades behind Beijing, under a smothering blanket of dirty brown smog so thick we couldn’t even see the tops of the faceless concrete blocks lining the hillsides. So this was Chongqing, the biggest city you’ve never heard of, the fulcrum of development for the Chinese interior, and the only city I remember for how absolutely hilarious it was to eat a meal there…
A curious crowd gathered as we attempted to tell a taxi driver we wanted to go to a hostel or cheap hotel; none of them spoke English, the three of us didn’t speak Chinese, and this was back before mobile internet and wifi made it so easy to check maps and book accommodation on the fly. Eventually we got in the cab and were on our way somewhere or other; the taxi ride took ages and he seemed to go over half a dozen bridges and drive up and down a whole series of rivers and steep hillsides, none of which could be clearly seen through the smog. Maybe he was going round in circles to run up the meter, or maybe this city was just absolutely massive.
Chongqing’s massiveness is evident in its sprawl, its crowds, and especially its architecture, which seems to consist of the same hideous tower block design repeated over and over, these ranks and files of concrete monoliths looming up ominously behind each other on the steep slopes of the city. The official population of Chongqing is 26 million, though this is an exaggeration as it includes the large rural hinterland that was carved off the corner of Sichuan province along with the city proper when Chongqing was designated one of the country’s four Special Municipalities (the others being Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin). The city proper contains perhaps half of the official Chongqing population; still pretty huge by any standards, especially for a city so little-known outside China.
All we knew about it was that this city was where we needed to go to take a boat down the Yangtze through the Three Gorges (as part of our mad first dash through China), and also that Chongqing hotpot is famous for being the spiciest version in all China. I love my spicy cuisine, and one of the guys I was travelling with, Mike, is a total food fanatic, so we were all about hitting up the Chongqing hotpot. We arrived in the evening (from Chengdu) and would be up at the crack of dawn to head downriver, so the plan was to find a hotel, dump our bags, and head straight out to a restaurant.
Somehow or other our man took us to a hotel (of sorts) that fit the bill, a weird place that seemed to be one floor of an anonymous apartment building. It was odd but it was cheap, and we didn’t fancy any more messing around so figured it would suffice; however, upon seeing us in her lobby the receptionist spontaneously combusted into a helpless puddle of hysterics from which she was completely unable to recover sufficiently to check us in. We had to wait for the manager to come out! A room was arranged for us with an extra mattress on the floor next to the double bed… there were no twin or triple rooms at this place, only doubles. And it felt really seedy… and why was it so funny for the three of us to be there, anyway? Well, later that night there were some vigorous ‘noises’ from the next room, and we eventually twigged that we were staying in some sort of love motel or maybe even a brothel, hence the young lady’s amusement.
Anyway, after a quick shower & change we headed out in search of this famous hotpot, ready to test ourselves against China‘s hottest dish (Chongqing and neighbouring Sichuan province are said to have the hottest women in China, but even more famously, the hottest food). We wandered around and eventually found a hotpot joint; it didn’t look great, and it was quite big but mostly empty which isn’t usually a good sign, but it was getting late and we hadn’t seen any others so in we went.
Again, our mere presence here produced quite the reaction; there wasn’t any music playing, but if there had been it would’ve stopped abruptly with a scratch of needle across vinyl. The staff and customers all seemed to freeze, beers half-poured or with chopsticks halfway to mouths, and all eyes stared at the three of us as we made our way to a table. It felt super-awkward at first, but things soon warmed up; a young woman not in staff uniform (who we eventually figured to be the manager and perhaps also the owner’s daughter) eventually came over to deal with us, and we were handed a sheet of paper covered in Chinese characters with check-boxes next to them. Apparently this was a list of ingredients, and we were to tick the items we wanted in our hotpot – while this is surely a convenient and efficient approach, you’ve got a slight problem if you can’t read Chinese! These days I can semi-competently read a Chinese menu, but at that time it was a case of complete guesswork. We laughed and gesticulated and pulled faces with our hostess, and ended up just ticking a bunch of random boxes. She took the paper and gave our selection the once over, evidently realised it was ridiculous, and came up with an effective alternative system – she beckoned us to follow her to the kitchen where we could just point at all the items we wanted.
Mike and I went with her, Ross (rather foolishly!) leaving it in our hands. We followed her into the kitchen, and that was a bit of an eye-opener to see – while the front of house looked reasonably clean and presentable, the kitchen was carnage. None of the shiny stainless steel surfaces and worktops I was used to seeing in professional kitchens in my bartender days; here were hacked up animal parts and bowls of blood sat around in grimy fridges, dubious-tapwater-washed vegetables lying in grotty sinks, and assorted disorganised crap everywhere… we are gonna get so sick, I thought. (But we didn’t – it was fine. I’ve definitely become far more blasé about travel food hygiene worries over the years since, perhaps starting that night!)
She threw the fridge doors open and indicated we should point to whatever we wanted… I chose a bunch of safer-looking items, making sure to include plenty of tofu and veg for our vegetarian companion Ross… but Mike the food nutter was in his element, like a kid in a candy shop where the candy’s been replaced with animal gizzards, running around the kitchen pointing at basically all the weird shit. Bowl of blood (duck? pig?!), check! Some animal’s intestines, check! Random unidentified internal organs, check! And what the fuck is that? No idea – check! The man went apeshit and probably ordered enough for a table of six – but seeing as he has an appetite for three it wasn’t too over the top!
Food ordered we went back out to the table and got stuck into some bottles of Snow beer (a Chengdu brew), while the waitresses set up the hotpot. You have a big round hole in the middle of your table, with a gas ring set into it, and they stick the hotpot on top – basically, a big round pot full of oil, in this case with so many chilli peppers in it that it was almost black – and crank up the heat. Then your chosen ingredients are placed on the table in individual bowls, the oil starts bubbling, and then… and then…
And then what are you supposed to do exactly? We had no idea… do we just dump it all in and let it cook in the pot? Meat first? Veg first? Are we supposed to do it in a particular way? We weren’t sure, but the entire restaurant staff, the owner’s daughter, and now a round old lady (the owner herself, we think) were watching our every move most intently. We decided to just shove a bowl of some sort of meat in to start with and let it cook for a few minutes, but this brought a quick rebuke from the old lady. She came and stood over us, barking instructions in Chinese and making us giggle nervously. Realising we didn’t understand a word she was saying, she simply took charge of our meal, starting with a demonstration of the correct technique; you pick up a piece of meat with your chopsticks, and you dip it quickly in and out of the oil, one, two, three, four, five times, and then straight in your mouth (it’s very thinly sliced, so it cooks quickly in the boiling oil)… but this demo didn’t end with her miming the food going in our mouths, she actually literally shoved this piece of meat straight into Mike’s gob! Then she had a another piece, one, two, three, four, five dips, and then boom! it was in my mouth, ready or not… and then Ross copped a slice of some animal in his face before he could protest his vegetarianism, and with no way of spitting it out with so many pair of eyes on him he decided to just make a good fist of eating it. After all, it was only one little slice…
…except it wasn’t. Like a mother bird feeding her hatchlings, this woman had clearly decided that we were incapable of doing it ourselves and so she was going to feed the entire meal to us! She continued to stand there, dip-dip-dipping slices of tripe and liver and chunks of congealed blood and then ramming them straight into our mouths, never skipping a beat no matter how hard we were laughing or whether or not we’d swallowed the previous mouthful yet. She was like a merciless food delivery machine, and once I had a piece of food in my mouth I had about 15 seconds to chew and swallow it while she force-fed Ross & Mike a piece each, and then I was getting another piece… some of it was really tasty, but I’m not a big fan of internal organs as food and the tripe especially was like chewing a leather belt! Not only that, but this stuff was hot! It was being dipped in a bowl of the fiercest chilli oil you can imagine and our mouths were lit up on fire and searing with a brutal heat, the oil lining the entire mouth and throat and making our eyes, ears and noses burn. It was a race against time to get it down before the next load came, laughing and spluttering and gasping for cool liquid, and it felt like being on some sort of mental game show on late night Japanese TV, doing a crazy eating challenge in front of a live audience, guzzling cold beers to help lubricate the mouthfuls of food and in a futile attempt to ease the burning.
It was absolutely hilarious. Just brilliant. I’ve never laughed so hard while trying to eat… I was laughing so hard I kept almost choking on animal parts, and whenever I looked over at poor old Ross he was turning an even deeper shade of green. There was absolutely no way of stopping her, she was as remorseless and relentless as the Terminator and she absolutely would not stop until it was all eaten… Ross’ only escape was to make regular extended trips to the bathroom, taking a full mouthful of half-chewed fire meat each time to be deposited in the toilet bowl. Meanwhile Mike was loving every second of it, taking on whatever came his way, and the watching staff obviously thought the whole scene was fantastic fun – so much so that they almost completely forgot about serving the rest of the restaurant, even when a large group of businessmen came in halfway through our meal.
Eventually, with Ross looking completely shell-shocked, me completely numb in the mouth from the chillies and with fire coming out of my ears, and even Mike’s bottomless stomach apparently nearing bursting point, our mother bird saw that we were more or less destroyed and decided her work was done. More cold beers were ordered to douse the flames, and we fell to laughing around and posing for photos with the staff… meanwhile, the businessmen on the other side of the room were getting fed up with us having five waitresses to ourselves while they only had one for their whole group, and one of them walked over and literally picked up two of the girls and carried them back to his table (in comedy fashion, not being an asshole about it).
This led to a cheer from their table, to which we responded in kind, and then we all mingled and it was all handshakes and ni-haos and nice-to-meet-yous and clinks of glasses and group photos, I think I even signed a couple of autographs in there bizarrely enough, and we finally left that restaurant grinning from ear to ear, stuffed to the gills, a bit tipsy, still burning and buzzing from the chilli peppers, and went to find a bar or club for a few more beers.
After a couple of seemingly random people on the street tried to take us into dodgy-looking massage parlours, we finally found a lively club and had a couple more drinks… I had the feeling that it would’ve been another eventful night (after this carry on in Beijing) had we stayed the course, but we left after an hour as we had to be up at the crack of dawn for the Yangtze river boat.
And up we were in the pre-dawn dark, checking out and leaving the receptionist in one last fit of hysterics, to make our way down the slopes to the river to head through the famed Three Gorges of the Yangtze. Despite all its pollution, its brutal architecture, and its rough and gritty edge, Chongqing (and its food and people) was a real highlight of the whole trip and we would’ve liked to check it out a bit better (I did return 8 years later and found it fascinating, with massively improved infrastructure but with its gritty, slightly bonkers, and intensely Chinese character still very much in evidence). As for the verdict on Chongqing hotpot, it was certainly one of the hottest things I’ve ever eaten (but not quite the hottest – that honour goes to Goan vindaloo), and while it wasn’t the highest quality meal I’ve ever eaten, it was definitely the most fun!
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