My fruitful encounter with iChongqing this week culminated in a behind the scenes experience at the Chongqing Hotpot Festival, and yet another spicy installment of the local delicacy for my audience.
Jinyuan Sqaure occupies a huge expanse of real estate beside the Jialing River on Beibin Lu, and plays home to the curious blend of a giant furniture store, a mall, Fantasy Land Theme Park, and the Junhao Hotel.
Since the Jinyuan carpark probably offers the greatest open space within the city, there was no issue accommodating all the biggest names in their own marquis style exhibitions, ready to entertain visitors with an authentic hotpot experience and stalls where they could buy all the ingredients to make it at home.
We set out on a cold, wet, blustery morning. After a twenty minute breeze towards the river, we met the crush of vehicles vying to enter the carpark and occupy an elusive space.
Perhaps knowing the way here better than some locals, we cruised over the loosely tiled ground that kicked up muddy water in all directions, until I found a wall-side spot kept clear by randomly placed traffic cones. We casually shifted them aside, ditched the car, and walked towards centre stage unnoticed.
A young lady from Chongqing Daily by the name of Vivi greeted us. She handed out a reporter pass each, and with the security guards placated, we were given free roam of the proceedings.
Once inside, there were countless mini tables equipped with wok, stove, utensils, and ingredients, all attended by professional hotpot chefs from around Chongqing and Sichuan, many of whom have managed restaurants throughout their professional life.
The aim of this stage was to demonstrate how they prepare the hotpot broth from scratch, so I glanced around in hope of finding a chef who had only just begun. Soon, my eyes met a friendly middle aged participant who was in the intial step of flavouring the melted beef tallow牛油 with leek.
Over the next hour, he talked us through the process, candidly answered our questions, and offered tips on making the best possible broth.
Ideally, he spends up to two hours preparing the broth in his restaurant, which he can then use for around five days. It’s common practice that when customers have finished, all the leftovers are filtered out, and the broth returned to a communal vat where it can form the base for a new wok.
The basic steps after flavouring the tallow is cooking the chilies, before adding the dark chili paste known as Dou-ban-jiang豆瓣酱, before finally throwing in peppercorns and herbal spices when the heat is cut.
Chefs are careful to maintain the right temperature, as they will scorch the chilies if the temperature rises too high. Too low, and the flavours won’t permeate well into the broth. Throughout the preparation, he stirred the mixture constantly to prevent any chilies adhering to the wok and burning.
Once the mixture attained the desired colour, he cut the heat and added in the peppercorns and spice. These final ingredients burn easily, so chefs must add them as a finishing touch.
We took some photographs together, after which he emptied the wok into a portable vat and made his exit. Out of curiousity and a desire to impress the locals, I picked out a few remaining chilies in the wok and ate them up straight.
For readers feeling curious, this wasn’t quite the suicidal gesture it may appear, as the tallow had taken away most of the spice, leaving behind a rather delicious aftertaste.
Cue Centre Stage
The guest of honour was undoubtedly Mrs. He Yongzhi何永智, president of the Chongqing Hotpot Association and highly successful restauranteur . Here’s a link to her interview with Gluckman.com, and her Chinese Baidu page.
After the chefs finished posing for group photographs, Vivi managed to gain her attention and squeeze in a few questions, to which she anwered with a passion and enthusiasm nobody could fail to appreciate.
Our encounter was a pleasant yet unexpected surprise, so when the microphone was thrust my way, I thought up two impromptu questions before organisers whisked her away to the next commitment.
I started by asking how she became the association leader, only to learn it was her who founded the organisation in the first place. Despite the fact my question must have seemed disingenuous, she still gave a brief yet generous overview of her path to current fame and fortune.
On the second attempt, I instinctively brought up the prospects of hotpot in the UK. She told me that she had organised a hotpot convention in London the previous year, and how locals, including the mayor of London, enjoyed the delicacy with great relish.
Once she had moved on, we went our separate ways. Overall, it had been another great experience following after the Manjianghong Jialing cruise.
After an obligatory hotpot lunch, I reversed the car out through a tight gap between a line of double parked cars, then disappeared into the drifting plumes of whispy cloud and fog.
This evening, iChongqing published our interviews from the event on the official Youtube platform. You’re welcome to see all the action below, plus connect to a link where you can watch a fantastic variety of entertaining and informative videos exclusively on Chongqing.