Ever keen to experience authentic local food, it felt wrong not to try spicy hot pots while in China! All I knew before the experience was that hot pot or hotpot (also known as ‘fire pot’) is basically 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. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?
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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 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 a pre-dinner beer, as it was so hot and humid. So, we got lured into a swanky looking restaurant which promised tasty and spicy hot pots.
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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 hotpots 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 Mandarin Chinese either). Oh, how we longed for Google Translate that night.
With a lot of sign language, thanks to misspent childhoods playing charades, we managed to order a couple of beers. Then we settled down to browse the menu, which was, of course, in Chinese but without any of the helpful pictures we’d become used to. What a drag.
A smiling waitress appeared and we still had no clue what to order, so she summoned another waiter who called the Maitre 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 meal was going to look like. Or taste like. But we like adventures…
The Salad Bar at the Spicy Hot Pots 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 pots 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 the spicy hot pots arrived soon after….
Spicy Hot Pots = A Lot 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 one of the hot broths. Hot being the operative word, as she immediately dumped the noodles into the bubbling chilli broth.
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. Especially when we saw what the “bacon” looked like when it had been cooked (shrivelled foreskins). How appetising…
How Could Something So Pretty Taste So Bad?
Suffice to say we ate barely anything, but what we did eat 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 repeat the experience.
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 the bar for a therapeutic gin. It was immeasurably better than dinner – and at least we knew what was in it.
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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.