James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Push Your Mediocre Spice Tolerance to the Limit

Push Your Mediocre Spice Tolerance to the Limit

Hot Pot in Chongqing

After nearly 30 hours of enduring unreliable squat toilets and sleeping in close quarters with screaming children, our overnight train from Beijing had finally arrived in Chongqing, a sprawling port city between the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. I was beyond delighted to leave the hissing train car, stretch my legs, and indulge in something other than my host brother Forest’s marshmallow snacks.

Upon arrival, I was informed that Chongqing is the hot pot capital of China, a place where hot pot is a lifestyle, not just a food item. This immediately reminded me of my family’s Taiwanese hot-pot feasts, which were subtle and assertively fragrant. I wish someone had told me that Chongqing hot pot is another beast entirely.

Though it was only 7 a.m., my host mother, Cindy, who had thoroughly researched food destinations out of boredom on our trip, took us to an intimidating, towering marketplace with floors dotted with open stalls, selling everything from used Apple devices to ominous tubs of red chili oil. The latter would prove to be a terrifying sign of things to come.

Stomachs rumbling, we stopped at the first stall we saw, an unsuspecting eight-seat space staffed by an elderly woman and her son, who could not have possibly been older than 11. The nameless stall had no menu, but was passionate in advertising its hot pot.

My taste buds and mediocre spice tolerance were soon pushed to the limit. Breakfast began with a refreshingly frothy, almost-floral soy milk, unlike anything I had previously tasted in the U.S. This comfort would soon be replaced by shared feelings of anxiety, as the empty pot in front of us was filled with a simmering chili oil-based broth. This was accompanied by a dizzying plate of innards, and more types of tofu than I could count. I tossed a tofu skin into the boiling broth, and after a minute or two, fearfully dug it out with a set of tongs. It more than made up for its delicate and flimsy in texture with unrelenting spiciness. Within a few seconds, my lips were overwhelmed by a distinctive tingly numbness, a confusing sensation I had never felt before. I was quickly drenched in sweat and ready to admit defeat. “Exhilarating, isn’t it?” the chef asked. I nodded in pain.

I looked over at my host brother, Forest, a young Beijinger completely unfamiliar with this sort of mala attack, to see how he was faring. I was greeted with tear-filled eyes and swollen lips. Our violently spicy meal came to a sudden halt with a single comment: “Mom, I need to visit the doctor now!”

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