I recently returned from a trip through China (thus no posts lately). The food was great and widely diverse - even if it was all "Chinese food." One meal in particular was a truly unique experience: Chongqing's famous Hot Pot.
My travel companions V, Sunia, Kevin and our friend Peter (who has been teaching English in China for almost three years, and guided us on the trip), joined one of his students, Tracy, along with her twin sister Cecelia and their parents for a hot pot lunch at a nice restaurant in Chongqing, called 巴渝红 (or Ba Yu Hong - "ba yu is the traditional name for Chongqing and Sichuan district, hong means red in Chinese," says Tracy).
Generally, meals in China are served family style, with lots of different dishes placed in the middle of the table (often on a lazy susan) with everyone poking their chopsticks where they want. Hot pot is much the same though the lazy susan is replaced by a pot of boiling broth sunken into the middle of the table (you could consider it Asian fondue). In our case, there were actually two pots, one inside the other. The inner pot had a mildly seasoned broth, while the larger outer pot was filled with a red-hot spicy broth.
By the way, the inside pot also had a whole pigeon already cooking in it when we walked in to our private dining room. And by whole pigeon I mean, the whole bird from the head, with beak and eyes, on down, submerged below the neck.
We did our best to ignore those beady eyes out of respect to our hosts. At this meal we learned a bit more about Chinese dining customs and etiquette. Private dining rooms are also common in Chinese restaurants, we experienced several on our trip ranging widely in ambiance. Because the table was round (as they so often are in China), the 'head' seat is that which faces the door, and is generally at the North of the room; Tracy and Cecelia's step-father was seated here, with Peter next to him. Peter taught us about toasting and how it is customary to toast the table as a whole and the host individually during a meal. We also learned that you should clink your glass lower than the person you're toasting as a sign of respect. This became a bit of a game as everyone was deferring their respect to the other. You can also toast anyone at the table and generally once you toast one person, you should toast everyone else, individually. Sometimes we did an extra special toast - a 'gān bēi' - which means "bottom's up" wherein we'd down the whole glass of beer. So there's lots of toasting going on at special meals like this. At least the beer is weak.
As for the meal itself, once we were all seated, the servers began to bring out small plates of raw meats and vegetables to cook in the broth. The dishes included:
- lotus root
- winter melon
- several different mushrooms, including "tree ear"
We also had a few more 'unique' items served up, including:
- chicken feet
- cow stomach
- congealed duck blood
- and the aforementioned pigeon
Of course, my other etiquette lesson is always try everything your host offers. It was also my attitude toward all the cuisine on the trip. If they eat it, so can I. Still, putting down congealed duck blood or stomach lining was a bit tough. To top it all off, though the servers placed these raw dishes around the table, as the meal went on the simply dumped the whole plates right into the broth, so we never knew what would come out when we stuck our chopsticks in!
The chicken feet and stomach were both tough and gritty, with little flavor besides that of the broth. I was afraid to try much from the spicy pot because spicy foods are tough for me, and adding new organs to that mix I feared could be dangerous! So there wasn't much flavor to some of the items I tried. The duck blood looked more like a slice of liver, I don't know how they managed to congeal it like they did, but I was told it was a medicinal food and I should eat lots. I managed to cut off a 1-inch square piece (not much, about a quarter of a 'slab') and try it: kind of like a textured Jell-O, also without too much flavor, but definitely a bit hard to take down. I managed to avoid the eel and intestine. The pigeon wasn't too bad actually. At one point, the server removed the bird from the pot and pulled the meat from the bones, dumping it back into the pots. It tasted very much like dark meat chicken, and was surprisingly good.
It was the noodle that just about did me in. These noodles were thick and slimy; I'd say 12 to 18 inches long, almost a centimeter wide and maybe half as thick. They were kind of a clear color, maybe rice noodles, very chewy and difficult to bite through. So, I slurped the whole noodle into my mouth and at this point struggled to chew and swallow it. I nearly gagged, and I was extra worried because of some of the less appetizing food items around, but managed to get the whole thing down. From there I stuck to things my palate was more used to.
Overall it was an amazing meal. It was really a great cultural experience both in terms of the food and the family who invited us to join them. I was definitely lucky to have the experience and it is something I won't soon forget. Perhaps I'll have to try it again here in New York at Caffe Swish, which offers a similar hot pot experience.