“Hotpot is an institution. It’s about the atmosphere, not just the food,” says Jordan Porter of Chengdu Food Tours.
The spiritual home of Sichuan mala (numblingly spicy) hotpot is Chongqing in south-west China – with 37 million people in its urban area it one of the world’s largest cities. The dish migrated south from Mongolia hundreds of years ago, and is now synonymous with this megacity. As Chongqing develops upwards and outwards, love of hotpot is about the only thing that has stood still.
The more than 50,000 hotpot restaurants in Chongqing are almost impossible to rank, so the best advice is to look for a restaurant with a big atmosphere. Downtown Chongqing, near the Jiefangbei business district, is a good place to start.
Lin Jiangmen (2 Zhonghua Alley) has a neon flame on the shopfront, a fridge stacked with Chongqing beer and a sack of dried chillies by the door. It’s also packed with families and groups of friends pulling tasty titbits from the steaming broth.
The hotpot’s tongue-numbing sensation comes from the presence of the hydroxy alpha sanshool molecule in Sichuan peppercorns, which are added to a fiery mix of beef lard, chillies, cardamom and fennel. Into it goes anything you like: lotus root, bean sprouts, rare strips of beef, duck intestine … but once it’s dropped into the oil, anything that comes out will be way up there on the Scoville scale.
The best way to cool off is with glugs of weak Chongqing beer, served in shallow ceramic bowls. And most importantly, tuck in your napkin – hotpots are pretty splashy, too.
• 3-4 hour walking tour around £45pp with Chengdu Food Tours