Our host took us out for a wonderful meal of Sichuan-style hot pot yesterday that she called Chuan Chuan. We met up with a couple of her friends and their kids, ate some delicious food, and had a blast. As we were all non-Chinese, I can not promise we ate this meal correctly, but the servers didn’t seem too thrown off by our behavior, so I’m guessing we came pretty close. If you’d like to try it yourself, or if you’re ever invited to one of these restaurants, here’s a quick breakdown of how it went:
Step One: Select a Broth
The choices we were given for broth was Spicy and Not Spicy. We went with half and half. The Spicy side was very flavorful and included some of Sichuan’s famous prickly ash. It looks like a little black peppercorn and creates an almost numbing sensation instead of heat. I can hardly stand food that has a lot of ground pepper, but I really enjoyed this broth. It didn’t burn, it was simply packed with flavor. The Not Spicy side had an almost fruitiness to it and was absolutely delightful.
You may notice the packets of oil on the left side of the picture. Those come in handy for Step Two.
Step Two: Prepare Dipping Bowl
The only thing better than oily food, is oily food dipped in more oil. Although we shared the large broth pot as a group, we each received our own dipping bowl. I filled mine with garlic, green onions, and oyster sauce. We then squeezed the packets of oil into each of our bowls and mixed them all together. After a few minutes, the oil absorbs the flavors of the other ingredients, creating a custom-made tastiness for the food to come.
Step Three: Select Skewers
Next up, each person grabs a metal tray and collects the food that they want to cook and eat. There were two fridges of vegetables and two of meats. Josh and I went with sliced potatoes, broccoli, lamb sausage, imitation crab, mushrooms, pumpkin, pork wrapped mushroom sprouts, and Not Bacon (it looked and tasted like bacon, but the server insisted that it was not bacon).
Each adult ordered a bottle of beer and bowl of rice (then seconds). We also had our dipping dishes that we prepared earlier and a cup of tea. Our tray (pictured above) was enough food for Josh and I along with two bowls of rice each. Next time, however, I think we will reduce the amount of rice and instead collect 10-25% more sticks of food.
Step Four: Cook and Eat
With Josh’s past working at The Melting Pot, the rest of the evening was a little more familiar. We cooked our sticks in the broth, similar to fondue. We occasionally ate each other’s sticks of food, but that added to the fun and variety. It’s a part of the meal, being laid-back about who eats what and sharing as a group.
Once I felt like my stick was done cooking, I took it out and dunked it in my dipping bowl. From there, it either went directly into my mouth or used as a lathering brush for my rice, then into my mouth. With the two styles, I was able to eat yummy sticks of food AND a deliciously saucy bowl of rice.
Step Five: Pay
I can see how this meal could easily take up half of the day. The amount of time it takes to cook each stick encourages conversation and drinking. The two other parties with us were traveling early in the morning, so we left out the heavy drinking part, but the conversation flowed easily and we spent more than an hour enjoying the food and each other’s company.
There was a small charge for the bowl of broth, beers, and rice. The remainder of the cost was charged by the number of sticks we collected. Our host told us that she has never spent more than ¥40 eating there and this meal didn’t turn out any different. We only got a look at half of the bill, but our portion came out to about ¥30/$5 each.
A new dish is always near the top of our Fun List, but a new dish that requires a new approach is even more fun. We had an amazing time with some great people, and can’t wait to try some different variations!