The gripes of broth
Two cities tussle over who makes the tastiest Sichuan hotpot
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, has an ancient rivalry with Chongqing, a city to its south-east. Residents of Chongqing accuse their Chengdu cousins of being pompous. The people of Chongqing are hotheads, Chengdu dwellers shoot back. Both cities share a love of spice-laden Sichuan cuisine, which in recent decades has conquered Chinese palates. But they are at war over which has the best Sichuan hotpot—a type of DIY-cooking that involves boiling vegetables and slices of meat in a communal broth with chillies and numbing peppercorns.
A private museum in Chongqing, opened several years ago, makes the case for Chongqing-style hotpot. It describes how it developed from a method used to make cheap offcuts of meat taste delicious. But Chengdu is playing catch-up. In January the city sold a plot of land on condition that the developer build a hotpot museum on part of it. Such presumptuous behaviour will test the famous fiery tempers of Chongqing-ites. Chengdu may be the capital of Sichuan cuisine’s eponymous province, but Chongqing was part of Sichuan for long periods of history until 1997. It is now the capital of its own province-sized region, which is also called Chongqing.
The two cities are among many in China with their own styles of hotpot. The stories behind these dishes reveal how different regions like to see themselves. Chongqing’s is said to highlight the ingenuity of the proletariat. Other places describe their hotpots as the sophisticated food of emperors. Some say theirs have military origins: warriors on the march boiling scraps in their helmets. Hotpot contents are equally diverse. To keep warm in winter, Beijingers boil fatty lamb in a berry broth. Mint-suffused Yunnanese hotpot reflects the province’s links with South-East Asia.