Ever keen to experience authentic local food, I was keen to try spicy hot pots while in China! All I knew before the experience was that Chinese hot pots or hotpot (also known as ‘fire pot’) involve a boiling pot of soup stock served at the table, to which diners add a variety of meat and vegetables – a little bit like an exotic fondue. Chinese hot pots sound delicious, don’t they?
It all seemed so simple. Take a leisurely five-minute stroll from our hotel (via a bar for a quick beer) then find a half-decent hot pot restaurant for dinner. We’d had tasty food every night on our China vacation, so what could possibly go wrong? Hmmm.
In our defence, we were shattered from travelling to Guilin from Xi’an, and we’d had that (one) pre-dinner beer, as it was so hot and humid. So, we got lured into a swanky-looking restaurant which promised tasty and spicy Chinese hot pots.
We Missed The Biggest Clue About Spicy Hot Pots
The staff and diners looked astonished when we walked in. We’d become so used to being stared at everywhere we went during our time in China that we totally missed this. We also failed to notice that we were the only Westerners in the restaurant. But, we’d just arrived from Xi’an where we’d strolled around the awesome Muslim market in the evenings, and we’d barely seen other Westerners there too, so we thought nothing of it.
Big Mistake. Huge!Julia Roberts as Vivian in Pretty Woman
Like innocent lambs to the slaughter, we followed the waiter obediently to a table right at the back of the restaurant. Stupidly, we didn’t pay much attention to what the other diners were eating as we passed by. Or where we were seated, which was right opposite the serving hatch for the kitchen. More about that in a minute…
A Table With a Big Hole
The first thing we noticed was the hole in the middle of the table. What did that have to do with spicy hot pots we wondered? We were about to find out…
The Challenge of the Language Barrier
No one in the restaurant had even the most basic grasp of English (in fairness, we don’t speak Chinese either). Oh, how we longed for Google Translate that night.
With a lot of sign language, thanks to childhoods playing charades, we managed to order a couple of beers. Then we settled down to browse the menu, which didn’t have any of the helpful pictures we’d become used to. What a drag.
A smiling waitress appeared, and we still had no idea what to order, so she summoned another waiter who called the Maître D. It started to feel like an episode of Candid Camera or Fawlty Towers.
Somehow we got through the process of ordering, although we’d no idea what our hot and spicy pot was going to look like. Or taste like. But we like adventures…
The Salad Bar at the Hot Pot Restaurant
The waitress reappeared and pointed us to a ‘salad/sauces bar’, signalling to us that we should make a selection. She giggled a lot and pointed at small dishes containing evil-looking concoctions, so we dutifully picked out a few mystery sauces and returned to our table.
Thankfully our beers had arrived. It was the high point of the whole experience.
Because that’s when spicy hot pots arrived. We soon wished we’d Googled “how do Chinese hot pots work”.
Spicy Hot Pots = A Truckload of Chilli
It looked good. The large two-sectioned (steaming hot) bowl was reverently lowered into the big hole in the table, then the other items were brought out. Oh, yummy. A vast platter of pink mystery meat and a plate of slightly pinker mystery meat with a lot of fat in it. We prayed it was bacon.
Then there was a bowl of uncooked noodles and what looked like raw bamboo shoots. Surely not? I know we could lose a few pounds, but neither of us is panda sized. How rude!
At this point, we noticed the gaggle of kitchen staff hanging out of the serving hatch gawping at us and laughing. This wasn’t subtle sniggering but full-on guffaws and pointing. Aha – now we knew why we were sitting at THAT table!
We Were The Evening’s Entertainment
One kind waitress took pity on us as we sat and stared at the “feast” before our eyes. With a lot of polite gesturing, she suggested that the raw noodles needed to be cooked in the spicy hot pot broth. Hot was the operative word!
She showed us how it was done and dumped the noodles into the
bubbling chilli cauldron hot spicy pot.
The meat and bamboo shoots also had to be cooked in the broth bowls. We’d wised up to her “nuke the tourists with chilli plan” by then, so we took charge and tossed them into the magic mushroom broth instead. It must have been magic mushrooms, as we were crying with laughter by this stage.
How Could Something So Pretty Taste So Bad?
We ate barely anything, but what we ate was so ferociously hot we felt like our heads would explode. With lips and tongues that felt like they would spontaneously combust, beer became a medicinal necessity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many chillies in one dish in my life and I’m reasonably keen not to try that hotpot recipe ever again.
Hysterical with laughter by this stage, we paid the bill for the worst, second most expensive meal of our trip to China before heading back to another bar for a therapeutic gin. It was immeasurably better than dinner – and at least we knew what was in it.
Visiting China can be an assault on your senses, but much of it is fabulous. This funny episode with an inedible dinner was an isolated incident – absolutely everywhere else we ate was fantastic!
If you’re planning a trip to China, you might find these articles helpful:
- 19 Awesome Things To Do In Xi’an – The Ultimate Cultural & Foodie City
- Exactly What to Expect on a Li River Cruise
- 5 Reasons Why a Chinese Brush Painting Class is a Great Idea
- Visiting the Terracotta Warriors
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Have you ever tried spicy hot pots in China? Or anywhere else? Maybe you’ve got a food horror story from your travels? Make me laugh and share it in the comments below.