No blog on Chongqing would be complete without coverage of the city’s most famous export, hotpot.
Originating from the steps of Chaotianmen Docks in days long bygone, where manual laborers armed with bamboo poles would jostle furiously to load and carry off goods, wares and perishables up the steep peninsula.
As Sichuan is well known nationally and abroad for its production of chilies, the workers used to boil the many left over into a spicy and palatable soup to cook up whatever food was available to them.
Since those early days, hotpot has developed into a rich variety of forms loved by all levels of society, and it’s estimated there are as many as 50,000 restaurants of this kind at any time in Chongqing.
I say loved by all, but that’s mostly the people of Sichuan and Chongqing. China is home to a great many different cuisines, and Chinese from out of town often discover the fiery taste a little too hot to handle.
With so much competition around, it’s a challenge for owners to keep such restaurants profitable, and the only way to stay open long term is to develop a recognisable brand that offers a unique experience to its customers.
In my new Chongqing hotpot series, I’m going to bring you the most unforgettable hotpot experiences to be found, and describe what makes them so special.
I hope you enjoy the series, and one day try this culture defining dish for yourself.
Army Captain (Da dui zhang) Hotpot – 大队长火锅
The unique feature of Army Captain Hotpot is the early Chinese revolutionary theme expressed through every last possible facet, start to finish.
All the staff wear dark green khaki suits, and at least one will be stood by the entrance ready to welcome you in. They wear tight fitting leather belts around the waist, the green beret with red star at the front, and a red armband. The women plait their hair into long pigtails bound at short intervals all the down, just as you see in the liberation war series on TV every day, if you look.
As soon as you walk inside, you will notice the romantic wooden and brick upholstery, a giant red star somewhere, walls decorated with Chairman Mao, slogans and calls to action. Everywhere, you see memorabilia, the Chinese signs use a delightful mixture of old Chongqing dialect terms, such as ‘Huoshi伙食‘ for food, and ‘Maofang茅房’, like ‘Spear room’ to mean the toilets.
Once you are sat down, at intervals during the meal, and on paying the bill, workers will stand to attention and shout out solemn declarations to announce the next stage of proceedings.
Like many branded restaurants, Army Captain Hotpot has a business model where prospective restaurant owners may join the enterprise, and in return for franchise payments, they benefit from the brand recognition, and receive the know-how and decorative instructions from HQ.
You can often tell when franchises are being sought by checking the tissue packs they give to customers. Look carefully, and you might see the words and following telephone number 加盟电话 (Jia meng dian hua).
Since the brand is quite well known, with branches in cities as far away as Beijing, you won’t have to search hard to locate one. The main challenge is noticing the sometimes inconspicuous entrances, but all you have to do is search 大队长火锅 on your Baidu Map, and you’ll hopefully find one within a few kilometres at most.
As for the hotpot itself, the main idea is similar wherever you go, so it’s usually more a question of quality, taste, value and service. Personally, I’ve always found visits to Army Captain very positive in all aspects, and the dramatic revolutionary theme will have you leave with a smile on your face.