Steam rises from the metal pot in front of me as I lift up my chopsticks and grab another tasty morsel that has been cooking away within. This purpose-built basin is divided into four quarters, which contains gently bubbling sesame oil. Two of the sections are also flavoured with chillies and tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, giving the liquid a deep red colour – the traditional, fiery way.
This is ‘numb and spicy’ hotpot, a hallmark of Sichuanese cuisine. It’s also a specialty of the Da Miao restaurant on Jin Li Street in the city of Chengdu, where I try this famous dish.
As we eat we’re entertained by dance performances on a small stage and ritualised tea pouring – using a two-metre-long vessel like an extravagant watering can.
Waitresses scurry from table to table, carrying beers and plates of fresh food to cook. Chatter and laughter fill the open restaurant area downstairs, although I sense that more serious conversations are being had in the more discreet upstairs rooms by businessmen and Communist officials. Deals are being struck through the steam.
“A restaurant is like a business place,” says Heng Xiao, a film producer from Beijing who is in town for a few days. The atmosphere is relaxed, you can drink freely and “sometimes you might agree to something you don’t mean to” he adds with a chuckle.
Yet Sichuanese food isn’t just about spicy hotpot. This year Chengdu has been listed as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. It is the first Asian city to be given this accolade. The narrow old lane of Jin Li Street shows the variety of Sichuan cooking, with excellent street food amongst the smart restaurants like Da Miao. There’s fried octopus and assorted meats dipped in chilli paste and then skewered on sticks. The smell of noodles, wonton and tangyuan (glutinous rice balls) hangs in the air. Dainty pastries and sugary treats can also be tried. But none of these flavours is quite so eye watering as the hotpot!
A few more images of Sichuan food (all images by Duncan Mills):