But Sichuan-style broths are the most commonly savoured in China. In recent years their popularity has been booming. China has around 350,000 hotpot restaurants. About 40,000 of them are said to be in the Chongqing region alone. Hotpot restaurants in China are more profitable than other kinds, according to iiMedia, a consultancy. Haidilao, a well-known Sichuan-based hotpot chain, raised nearly $1bn when it was listed on the Hong Kong exchange in September. The company is taking its hotpot global. It expanded into Canada in December. Branches are set to open in London later this year.
The more adventurous tastes of younger Chinese are fuelling demand. One-third of customers at hotpot restaurants in China are aged between 25 and 30, iiMedia says. They often have little time to cook at home and are unburdened by child-care duties. They like the social aspects of sharing hotpots. Round-the-clock restaurants are sprouting up to allow leisurely feasting.
While younger Chinese are increasingly health-conscious, they seem to brush off regular hotpot-hygiene scandals. A viral video of a pregnant woman fishing a rat from her broth caused a cooling in the shares of Xiabuxiabu, a chain restaurant named after a Japanese style of hotpot, but they heated up again a few days later. Haidilao even won plaudits when it admitted that rats had been found in some kitchens and vowed to clean up its act. News of other businesses reusing weeks-old oil in the broth is greeted with a shrug. The grubbiest hotpot joints are usually the best, young people often say with a grin.
Not all Chinese warm to hotpot. Some older Sichuanese disown it altogether. They complain that it is causing an escalation of chilli-use in other dishes that drowns out subtle flavours. Chua Lam, a celebrity food critic based in Hong Kong, caused a stir in December when he wished hotpot would disappear from the face of the Earth. He dismissed it as “the most uncultured form of cooking”, requiring no real culinary knowledge.
But Chengdu’s plans for a museum suggest that Sichuan hotpot is not only growing in popularity, but is also becoming iconic. If it can set the West on fire, officials may hope it will become a delicious new source of Chinese soft power. There will be plenty of glory for both Chengdu and Chongqing to bask in if that happens.