The gripes of broth
Two cities tussle over who makes the tastiest Sichuan hotpot
A fiery dish takes China by storm, irking snooty food critics
CHENGDU, THE capital of Sichuan province, has an ancient rivalry with Chongqing, a city to its south-east. Residents of Chongqing accuse their Chengdu cousins of being pompous. The people of Chongqing are hotheads, Chengdu dwellers shoot back. Both cities share a love of spice-laden Sichuan cuisine, which in recent decades has conquered Chinese palates. But they are at war over which has the best Sichuan hotpot—a type of DIY-cooking that involves boiling vegetables and slices of meat in a communal broth with chillies and numbing peppercorns.
A private museum in Chongqing, opened several years ago, makes the case for Chongqing-style hotpot. It describes how it developed from a method used to make cheap offcuts of meat taste delicious. But Chengdu is playing catch-up. In January the city sold a plot of land on condition that the developer build a hotpot museum on part of it. Such presumptuous behaviour will test the famous fiery tempers of Chongqing-ites. Chengdu may be the capital of Sichuan cuisine’s eponymous province, but Chongqing was part of Sichuan for long periods of history until 1997. It is now the capital of its own province-sized region, which is also called Chongqing.
The two cities are among many in China with their own styles of hotpot. The stories behind these dishes reveal how different regions like to see themselves. Chongqing’s is said to highlight the ingenuity of the proletariat. Other places describe their hotpots as the sophisticated food of emperors. Some say theirs have military origins: warriors on the march boiling scraps in their helmets. Hotpot contents are equally diverse. To keep warm in winter, Beijingers boil fatty lamb in a berry broth. Mint-suffused Yunnanese hotpot reflects the province’s links with South-East Asia.
But Sichuan-style broths are the most commonly savoured in China. In recent years their popularity has been booming. China has around 350,000 hotpot restaurants. About 40,000 of them are said to be in the Chongqing region alone. Hotpot restaurants in China are more profitable than other kinds, according to iiMedia, a consultancy. Haidilao, a well-known Sichuan-based hotpot chain, raised nearly $1bn when it was listed on the Hong Kong exchange in September. The company is taking its hotpot global. It expanded into Canada in December. Branches are set to open in London later this year.
The more adventurous tastes of younger Chinese are fuelling demand. One-third of customers at hotpot restaurants in China are aged between 25 and 30, iiMedia says. They often have little time to cook at home and are unburdened by child-care duties. They like the social aspects of sharing hotpots. Round-the-clock restaurants are sprouting up to allow leisurely feasting.
While younger Chinese are increasingly health-conscious, they seem to brush off regular hotpot-hygiene scandals. A viral video of a pregnant woman fishing a rat from her broth caused a cooling in the shares of Xiabuxiabu, a chain restaurant named after a Japanese style of hotpot, but they heated up again a few days later. Haidilao even won plaudits when it admitted that rats had been found in some kitchens and vowed to clean up its act. News of other businesses reusing weeks-old oil in the broth is greeted with a shrug. The grubbiest hotpot joints are usually the best, young people often say with a grin.
Not all Chinese warm to hotpot. Some older Sichuanese disown it altogether. They complain that it is causing an escalation of chilli-use in other dishes that drowns out subtle flavours. Chua Lam, a celebrity food critic based in Hong Kong, caused a stir in December when he wished hotpot would disappear from the face of the Earth. He dismissed it as “the most uncultured form of cooking”, requiring no real culinary knowledge.
But Chengdu’s plans for a museum suggest that Sichuan hotpot is not only growing in popularity, but is also becoming iconic. If it can set the West on fire, officials may hope it will become a delicious new source of Chinese soft power. There will be plenty of glory for both Chengdu and Chongqing to bask in if that happens.
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “The gripes of broth” (Apr 13th 2019)