There was a certain feeling of certainty as I woke up that morning and recalled peering through the hot steam the night before, sound of chatter and banter and mouthwatering aromas almost beyond the realm of human detection. I got up as usual, took a shower, drew a hole in the steam on the bathroom mirror, brushed my teeth, and went down for breakfast. But so far nothing. Not the breakfast, this was plentiful. But my stomach wasn’t showing anything, any sign of trouble that is. You might wonder why that morning I was expecting stomach trouble.
If you’ve spent any time in this part of China, you will by now be both dismissing the title of this piece and understanding entirely. Anyhow, of course I couldn’t escape from this so easily, so predictably after a cup of coffee, a croissant, and some rice-porridge, I began to feel somewhat troubled, therefore I swiftly ran back to the bedroom, only to emerge broadly ten minutes later to continue chipping away at the vast breakfast buffet, feeling somewhat more relaxed.
To elaborate, please allow me to rewind 12 hours. 12 hours prior, immersed in a neon-lit city night. Where millions of people rushed around us, pushing and shoving, going here and there. We dived out of this sea of people, climbed into the refuge of a quiet, steep, red-neon-lit alley, and then into a steaming-sauna of a restaurant, concerned and starved in equal measures, waiting with anticipation for what was to be presented to us, for this city has a reputation that precedes it, and for a very good reason.
The sound of pots and pans smashing around the kitchen, serving staff shouting orders across the dining room to each other, rice-whisky fueled banter being thrown around by diners; this was a typical restaurant scene in China.
Glancing around through the hot spicy steam and cigarette smoke, we could see numerous couples and small groups hovered over simmering cauldrons of vicious-looking oily red broth, dipping in their meats and vegetables, pulling them out – by which point they’ve soaked up copious amounts of chilli and numbing Sichuan peppers – and after slopping on some sauce that they concocted from the DIY sauce station in the corner, they were washing the dipped article down with dangerous amounts of insanely powerful rice-whisky and conversely room-temperature and watery Chongqing beer. It was very, very lively, and the smells coming from the boiling pots in the middle of each table were just incredible.
We sat down on our rickety wooden stools, ordered not from a menu, that was not allowed. The grinning waitress told us we must use our smartphone to order via an app. I wondered what had become of paper in Chongqing. Our wide cauldron holding a deep-red mysterious pool appeared like magic, placed on our gas-lit flame, and flames licking at the base, began bubbling away, teasing us with its pungent aromas of Sichuan pepper and chilli. And so it was that for the next hour, we dipped our offals, meats and vegetables, cooked, dipped and ate, and put ourselves through the pleasure and pain that is a Chongqing hotpot. An hour later and we were finished. I cannot put into words how it tasted. But it was an explosion of flavours, on many different levels.
When we’re discussing levels of spice, pleasure and pain is not something I would always have associated with Chinese food. Spending my formative years in the UK, I always thought that somewhat legendary of curries, the Indian vindaloo was the hottest, and wildly spiciest thing ever invented by mankind. Then I spent a good portion of my post-graduation years in Asia, and found that the Thais and the Laotians have things that make vindaloo taste, well, a little on the mild side. It wasn’t until I came to China that I realised when Sichuan peppers are introduced alongside chillis, the level of heat reaches a whole different level. The Sichuan peppers, if you’ve not tried them, give off a powerful sensation akin to a burning anesthetic, if that makes sense, but not numbing enough so you can’t feel anything.
At the same time they induce an odd kind of dizzy feeling that cannot be produced by any other food. Since coming to China, it has become apparent that what I thought was Chinese food, served out of those outdated, run-down Chinese takeaways typical of a British high-street, is far from the reality of the diverse array of flavours found throughout China, particularly highlighted in Sichuan and neighbouring Chongqing cuisine. Thankfully with the new generation of Chinese visitors to the UK, this is changing, and particularly in major cities like Manchester and London, the UK is seeing a revival and an overhaul of Chinese cuisine.
Back to Chongqing. Later on in the warm evening, as we meandered up and down the steep, narrow streets I spotted a lady, street-side with a cart, a heavy pan, and an array of sauces and spices, frying up gleaming potatoes, coating them with a, I promise, totally not credible amount of crushed chilli and Sichuan peppers, that after one dose, temporarily sizzled all memory of the hotpot we had only a few hours prior. That dish was deeply, deeply incredible. Imagine your finest roast-potatoes with the flavour-level multiplied by 500.
Chongqing is a city of 8 million at the confluence of the Yangzi 扬子 (more commonly known as Chang Jiang 长江 – long river) and Jialing 嘉陵 rivers, which gives it a kind of island effect. Just like Hong Kong, it is built into mountains, has stupidly steep streets, and is a vertical, high-rise city, with seemingly endless metallic towers shooting up to the sky. Just like Hong Kong it is also a culinary enthusiast’s dream.
But what is definitely not just like Hong Kong, is the relatively low number of foreign visitors to the city. Of course, you do see them, but usually in big tour groups, and they won’t stay for long. It seems most foreign visitors to Chongqing visit only because it is the jumping on point for a Yangzi river cruise (or Yang Zeee, as we were led to believe it was called by our school Geography teacher while teaching us about the world’s largest hydroelectric dam).
These visitors rarely stick around long to explore the cuisine Chongqing is famed for, or to dive in and out of the narrow alleys built into the mountains, full of street-level trade and commerce that is often quite unique to this city.
Chongqing has a whole industry of men and women hauling vast packages up and down the steep hillside streets of the city, as this is much quicker that the goods going the long way around by motor-vehicle.
We passed a whole road of women knitting roadside, hats and scarves and other things to be sold in adjacent shops. Beijing has a lot of people sitting around, relaxing, people watching, and why not, but it seems in Chongqing everyone is busy with some kind of trade. I could spend days walking around immersing myself in everything that’s going on in Chongqing.
Chongqing is built on many different levels. Enter a building on what you think is the ground floor and going out the other-side, you may need to descend ten floors to return to ground level. Take a ‘subway’ train, and when you arrive at your destination you may find your train entering the eighth floor of a high-rise causing you to descend many stairs on your way out with a total feeling of disorientation.
One never quite knows what level one is supposed to be on. To get people up one of the many steep hills, Chongqing is home to one of the world’s longest continuous escalators, that frankly makes central London Piccadilly line escalators seem minuscule. Look around and it is clear to the eyes that despite the apparent abundance of food in the city, and some of it, like hotpot, a little heavy on the calories, most people seem in pretty good shape. Take in all the hills and the reason is quite clear.
Neighbouring city Chengdu is relatively inundated with visitors because of the panda sanctuaries nearby. Chongqing gets largely overlooked by foreign visitors at least, but the reason is unclear. Perhaps this relatively unknown city deserves more publicity. However not too much, no, too many visitors would of course cause it to loose the charm that is unique about this city. So do visit, but don’t tell your friends.