Saturday, August 18, 2007

The fire within

So you think you’re pretty hard when it comes to all things spice, do you? You can wolf down a vindaloo with nary a peep of complaint. The hottest, tongue tingling creation from Chiang Mai barely elicits a bead of sweat from your brow. Kimchi doesn’t even register on the heat scale of your well-worn taste buds. You even laugh in the face of Mexican chilli.
Then it’s time for your comeuppance.
Chongqing, one of the four so-called furnaces of China, is home to the hotpot or huoguo, and dear God is it hot!
The experience is so bodily debilitating to the novice that countless parts of the human anatomy simply give up normal operations when confronted with this red menace.
First to cease functioning are your lips; they start to tremble, go numb and generally careen all over the place out of control.
Next to go is any form of decorum as you stretch across the table and neck any available beer in sight in a desperate attempt to douse the fire.
Finally, and often for days afterwards, your bowels are in a total mess. You will be uncertain whether or not it is safe to switch off your computer for all the downloading you’ll be doing!
A ‘Chongqing’ hotpot from outside of the world’s largest municipality simply isn’t the same thing as a Shanghainese friend recently related to me. “Sure they are warm enough,” he said of the various Shanghai incarnations he’d had over the years, “but really they are like hot water compared to the real thing.”
So what is it then that does the damage? It is not the mass of red peppers floating in the broth, nor even the pungent chilli oil. It is the local ingredient, hua, that sets the mouth on fire. These speckled little balls look like peppercorns, add a certain aniseed quality to the soup and never fail to numb. Local residents delight in showing silly spice-boasting foreigners, lao wei, like yours truly their cuisine. You’ve been warned.

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