Travelogue: Chongqing’s most famous food tingles taste buds
By Megan Zhang, Liu Zhenshuo
01:11

A pot of blood-red broth simmers in the center of the dining table, friends gathered around it eying the flavorful liquid with anticipation. The constant flame underneath sparks bubbles on the surface, sending the thick layer of floating oil and chili peppers into a dance that releases a fiery aroma so savory it tickles the nostrils. 

The simmer crescendos to a boil, and hungry hands maneuver chopsticks into plates of raw meat, picking up morsels of grub and dunking them into the scalding soup. Sliced mutton and fish balls — now cooked and dressed in a spicy coat of mouth-tingling flavor — make their way into eager mouths, sending tongues aflame with the shock and delight that only Sichuan peppers can awaken. 

Just when the ripples of hotness start to subside, a wave of numbness sets in, bringing a calming sensation that offers a pleasant respite from the histrionics of the first. As the Chinese call it, this is the la followed by the ma, a pair as inseparable as yin and yang, a flavor combination that sets Chongqing-style hot pot apart from the rest.

Chongqing-style hot pot is a feast for the eyes as much as the taste buds. /CGTN Photo

Chongqing-style hot pot is a feast for the eyes as much as the taste buds. /CGTN Photo

In the old days when Chongqing's docks were bustling with merchants and traders, hot pot originated as poor men's food. Dock workers gathered along the banks of the Yangtze River at dinner time, sharing a pot with strangers and using metal frames to cordon off a patch of broth for every diner. 

These metal frames are still used today, although their purpose has evolved; the frames keep ingredients separate so diners can locate them in the broth. They also allow the same pot to have a non-spicy portion, although it's usually only out-of-towners who will ever order this at a restaurant in Chongqing. 

Metal frames help diners easily find their favorite ingredients in the pot. /CGTN Photo

Metal frames help diners easily find their favorite ingredients in the pot. /CGTN Photo

There's a belief among Chongqing locals that eating spicy food for generations has ingrained in them a collective toughness and the ability to prevail against adversity. The numbing quality of the peppers also dulls pain and suffering, thus instilling Chongqing natives with a deep-seated sense of optimism and positivity. In Chongqing, hot pot is thoroughly intertwined with the culture. It is far more than a dish, but a lifestyle that represents the spirit of the metropolis.

When it comes to dining companions, locals believe more is always merrier. /CGTN Photo

When it comes to dining companions, locals believe more is always merrier. /CGTN Photo

1468km