Chongqing Home of the Hotpot
With 31 million people Chongqing is the biggest municipality in China, bigger than Shanghai and Beijing and possibly the largest in the world.
The city is known for its fog and heavy air pollution due to massive industrial development, earning it the nickname ‘Fog Capital’. It’s particularly bad in winter and the November day I arrived on was no exception with visibility down to a few hundred meters, which is a shame because its hilly terrain and huge buildings make it an awe inspiring place to drive around, especially at night when it’s lit up. Apparently things are improving though and a drive to reduce air pollution by the municipal council has led to an increase in ‘blue sky days’, though I have yet to see one.
It’s also very near Yao’an which suffered the devastating earthquake in May 2009.
Chongqing is the capital of Sichuan province, which has one of the most famous cuisines in China. They like it spicy here and many dishes will include dried red chilli, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, garlic and black beans. Chonqing Expat is a useful website that lists specialities and restaurants.
Chongqing is where hot pot (huo guo) originates from and the Cygnet Hot Pot Palace is accepted by most as the best place for it in town. There are several branches all over town but their flagship on Minzu Lu in Yuzhong is the place to go if you would like some live entertainment (folk dance, music, theatre) with your meal.
The location at 22 Minzu Lu is a little hard to find if you are illiterate in kanji like me, (make sure you have the name written down by hotel reception) but the entrance is in an elevated square next to the Chongqing bank, the lift to the sixth floor is on the right as you go in. They have a swan symbol before the name so you know you’re in the right place when you see it.
Sadly it was just finishing when I arrived at 8 (inept taxi driver) and many people were already leaving in a state of loud inebriation. It’s quite a party place.
The friendly lady on the door looked after me really well and found an ancient menu in English for me to look at. Ducks blood, chicken gizzards and pig snouts were all in evidence but sticking with the maxim ‘what tastes good is what tastes familiar’ I went with the safe bets: sliced fatty beef, ‘silver’ mutton, sheets of bean curd, ‘drumstick’ mushrooms, Chinese leaves and Cos lettuce. I also got an unasked for plate of local ‘jack fish’ but my chopstick skills weren’t up to deboning it so I abandoned it as a mangled mess.
For the stock I opted for the classic ‘red and white composite hot pot’ which consists of two sauces in concentric bowls, The central red stock was a searing combination of red chillies and Sichuan peppercorns (you should shake these off the food or spit them out to avoid a numb tongue), oil, ginger and lemongrass with other unknowns floating around while the outer white stock is without any spice but with scallions and cucumber bobbing on the surface.
About halfway through the meal a chef came and replenished both rings with the same kettle of white stock so I guess they have the same base. Needless to say I went for the red every time and soon had a small mountain of tissues next to me as the heat from the gas ring and the chillies started to take their toll.
Taking a few pinches of uncooked ingredients at a time, you simmer them briefly before fishing them out and dipping them in a watery brown sauce thickened with a big dollop of raw minced garlic and a pinch of a salty powder (not MSG because that was in another dish) or in soya sauce before making the final journey to the eagerly awaiting gob. Utterly delicious if a bit messy. They even had Snow beer, my favourite Chinese ale, on hand to cool things down.
To finish some complimentary cooling watermelon and err… cherry tomatoes (a dessert fruit here). Total bill a mere 78 RMB. A must do I would say.
The oldest and most famous restaurant in town is Lao Sichaun Dajilou (Old Sichaun Hotel) which the locals abbreviate to ‘Lao Su’. The address I was given was 186 Minzu Lu but the taxi driver seemed to disagree so perhaps it’s moved or there are two locations.
I meant to get some recommended dishes written in kanji (such as wool beef, smoked duck rice, cold pork garlic and chrysanthemum aubergine) but it was hard enough just getting the name and address of the place so I didn’t go there. Unfortunately there were no English translations in the menu but it did have pictures so I played it safe and just pointed at safe and familiar looking dishes (as opposed to the beautifully presented but daunting sea cucumbers/slugs and what looked like a deck chair made of tripe!).
First to arrive was a dish of steamed pak choi with chopped red and green chillies doused in soya sauce.
This came with another dish of chopped greens with shredded pork and dry red chillies. Both dishes were great for me as they played straight to my soya sauce and chilli addictions.
To go with this I thought I’d ordered crispy duck pancakes but this turned out just to be just duck skin covering a mound of prawn crackers. No problem, the skin was delicious wrapped in the delicate pancakes with cucumber and spring onion and smothered with hoisin sauce.
Alongside was a huge bowl of rice, enough to feed eight people, as well as a couple of local Shandong beers.
Don’t quite know how but I managed it but I ate about two thirds of the food, excluding the rice, despite massively over ordering. The bill came to 112 RMB, under £12, so I didn’t feel too bad.
They were starting to switch the lights off at 9 on a Thursday evening so I’d get there early if you can.
Last time I was here in 2008 I stayed at the five star Harbour View Hotel and found it very pleasant, though the pool is a bit small. The hotel is very central and within walking distance of Minzu Lu and Wuyi Lu which have lots of good restaurants.
On this occasion I stayed in the 5 star Park Hotel which is on the other side of the river from the downtown. It’s absolutely huge, 32 floors that look out onto a Blade Runner cityscape and high speed lifts on the outside of the building that give you a bird’s eye view. From inside I could only look down the central atrium for a split-second before my vertigo drove me back from the edge.
The rooms and bathrooms are large and comfortable and have free internet via a cable connection but only CNN and HBO on the telly. There is a well equipped gym in the basement but the whiff of car fumes from the underground car park opposite make it rather unpleasant to be in there on some days.
I tried the Japanese restaurant in the basement for lunch once but the ingredients of my raw fish set, although nicely presented, weren’t as fresh as I would have liked. The waitresses didn’t want to let me in at first even though they were still officially open at ten to two. I also had a lunch of Youngchow fried rice, steamed Pak Choi with black beans and a beer for RMB 100 from the second floor Chinese restaurant which was very tasty but a bit pricey. I also thought the prices in the bar were rather extortionate at 45 RMB for a Tanqueray and tonic (30 RMB in Wenzhou) but when they added on another 7 RMB service charge I nearly choked on my peanuts.
If you go down to the basement floor and past the breakfast room, there is an escalator that will take you down to the entertainment city which is under the urban park in front of the hotel. Besides a supermarket, there are more restaurants here, as well as pubs, karaoke and hostess bars, betting shops, amusement arcades and internet cafes. There is a swimming pool down here somewhere too but I couldn’t find it.
Although it’s easy not to go anywhere when everything you need is on your doorstep in the hotel, one good reason to go to these restaurants is the taxi ride there.
You get some amazing views of this futuristic city when it’s all light up at night.
Taxis are cheap as chips too, just a couple of quid, though you may have to wait a while on the street to get one for the return journey.