Between the Great Firewall of China and really slow internet connections, I haven’t been able to post for a while. I’m going to try to play catch up. Here goes….
Last Thursday we had a nightmarish travel day leaving Huizhou at 4:30am for a bus ride to the airport in Shenzhen, then flew to Chongqing, which is just east of the Sichuan province. Chongqing is not technically a city; it’s a municipality. I don’t actually know the difference and the only reason I mention it is that there are 30 million people who live here. So I believe, if it were actually a city, it would be the largest in the world. It sits where the Yangtze and Jialing rivers meet. In fact, the theater we performed in sits on a hill looking over where the two rivers meet.
The Yangtze is the third largest river in the world and Chongqing is a popular stop for those going on a cruise through the beautiful three gorges. That is, until the building of the Three Gorges Dam is complete, after which the gorges will be submerged. I would have killed for a couple days off to take a cruise myself, but it’s not in the cards this trip.
This area of the country is known for its spicy food, particularly a dish called “hot pot”. Actually, the literal translation from the Mandarin is “fire pot”. It’s a broth made with chilies, garlic, water and oil. It sits over a burner on the middle of a table, boiling. You select different vegetables, seafood and meat and cook them in the soup. Everyone is given a dipping sauce of toasted sesame oil and garlic. Chongqing is said to serve the hottest of the hot pots and it was a goal of mine to give it a try. A lot of people in the cast were eager to as well.
The first night we got into town we took a suggestion from the hotel for a restaurant and a few cab loads of us headed into town. They dropped us off in the middle of a huge, outdoor shopping area that was bustling with people. The restaurant looked really nice but was in a mall-type place. I’m just not too keen on eating in malls, especially in another country. We had some time to kill so we split up and walked around hoping to find something more authentic. It didn’t take long till we found a market with dozens of vendors winding up a little lane.
It was here we spotted what looked like a perfect spot but I feared it would be a hard sell. See, it was kind of in an alley. This was truly street food, as in, you’re sitting on a short, squat stool on an actual street. And it didn’t so much have a ceiling as it had a few tarps hung between the buildings. But the food looked and smelled amazing. They were making the broth in big pots in the middle of the alley. There were shelves of meat, seafood and vegetables on skewers.
The tour manager, Lindsay, who speaks Mandarin, talked to the owners and they were very accommodating of our large group. We gathered the troops and brought them there; a little nervous that they might notice the health inspector hadn’t been there in a while. We kept saying, “But you cook the food in boiling hot broth so that has to kill anything bad, right?”
A few were turned off but 12 of us stayed and were lucky to have. The food was amazing. Some people were scared of the hot soup so they offer a pot with a divider, half with the hot soup, half in a delicious vegetable broth with no heat. We went to town picking loads of skewers: broccoli, various greens, cilantro, seaweed, tofu, tofu skin (which looked really weird but was quite tasty), potatoes, sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, different kinds of mushrooms, taro root, quail egg, sausage, beef, ham, pork….I think I got it all. Since I was mostly eating vegetables, I was able to just eat and eat and eat. Or maybe that’s because I’m a gluttonous pig.
The soup was hot but not overwhelming. It was a different kind of burn than I’m used too. It was spicy for sure, but not very painful and it didn’t overwhelm the other flavors. Also, it went straight to my head, giving me a bit of a buzz. And hours later, I had this heat in my stomach that I can only describe as oddly comforting.
Honestly, it was one of my favorite meals of all time. The flavor of the food was incredible. Sesame oil and crushed garlic, folks, I’m putting it on EVEYTHING when I get home. The company was excellent. The staff was so helpful and kind. And here’s the kicker: When they gave us the total, by counting the used skewers and adding up the beers (about 15 32 oz beers) the total was 180 yuan. Do you know what that comes out to in dollars? 26, for 12 people eating and drinking like kings. That’s TWO DOLLARS A PERSON. I kept saying, “Have them count it again! They must be wrong!” But they were right. We left them a nice tip telling them, through Lindsay, that it was the best meal we’d had in China and in our country, when you enjoy your meal, you leave a tip.
We’ve had the option of eating in the hotel three times a day for free. That’s very convenient but it’s the same food everyday and it makes you feel like you’re chained to the hotel. I’ve done most of my eating on the street and have found that, for the most part, it’s fresh, made by hand about 5 seconds before you eat it, and ridiculously delicious. I mean, one must be smart. If it looks shady, don’t eat it. But I haven’t seen much that’s really dodgy. Kieran, the uillean piper on tour said to me before the meal, “I’m so glad you have food balls”. I like that term, especially in lieu of “foodie” which rings with pretension and prissiness. So strap on your food balls, folks, and try something new.