Spending a few hours to eat dinner is not a strange thing in China. This meal is regarded as an indispensable activity necessary for a day to be considered complete. There is an old Chinese saying, which translates literally to: “People regard food as their sky, their god.” This saying emerged around 2000 years ago, when China was a primarily agrarian society in which most were peasants. Food thus defined their lives and was given a meaning higher than anything.
Although that time has long passed, the importance of the “sky,” the attention paid to eating, and the respect for food became a precious legacy, reflected in the different styles of the “Eight Cuisines.” This can be seen in the making of exquisite food like mooncakes or dumplings for traditional festivals and the eating of salt-water-boiled edamame and persimmons for certain solar terms, and in the daily earnest efforts taken by parents to immediately cook the fresh food they bought from the market and to turn the food into a sumptuous dinner full of love for their children.
This summer I had the privilege of visiting one of the best treasure troves of Chinese food culture, Chengdu. Chengdu is a city in Sichuan Province, located in southwestern China, a city that is famous for pandas and for its high happiness index. Among Sichuan food, the most representative is undoubtedly Hot Pot.
On our first day there, my friends, our parents, and I strolled down the streets of Chengdu at dawn without any planned destination. As we began to feel hungry, we noticed a famous hot pot restaurant in front of us – red lanterns hanging on both sides of the entrance and two vermeil chairs with intricate carved patterns. A giant grey sculpture of a Chinese dragon was on the wall in between those chairs, an impressive beginning to our dinner. However, we were told that we needed to wait at least an hour and a half to dine there. We were starving and considered going to another restaurant, but the delicious smell that leaked through the open door and wafted into our noses kept our feet firmly in place.
While waiting, I looked around: people waited in small groups, sitting on those wooden stools, reading the newspaper, or watching the TV set up specially for waiting crowds. The people inside the TV were laughing and the crowd in front of the TV were similarly chatting and giggling. It seemed to me that for those people sitting outside of the restaurant, waiting for an hour to get dinner was a normal thing, even enjoyable. Daylight lingers longer in Chengdu than in my hometown; that day, although it might have been seven or eight o’clock, it was light out. The scorching heat of the sun had already disappeared as the glow of the sunset bathed our faces in red.
Finally, we were seated in the restaurant. Groups of people surrounded large tables with giant copper pots in the middle. The air was filled with heat, spice, and the tempting fragrance of hot pot broth. After a torturous wait, the red spicy broth boiled. Several pairs of chopsticks dropped raw meal slices into the pot in unison.
After ten to fifteen seconds of swimming in the broth, the rosy meat slice, thick as a piece of paper, was done. We reached in once more to extract the meat from the steaming pot to dip it into a side sauce made with sesame oil, chopped garlic, and scallions. Then this piece of juicy meat covered by a thin layer of shiny chili and sesame oil was ready. At first bite, the juice of the meat splashed in my mouth, mixed with the original flavor of fresh meat and the thrilling spicy savor absorbed from the hot pot broth. This taste drove that annoying colleague during my internship, the unfinished project approaching its deadline, and all of the miscellaneous stuff out of my brain. At that moment, the only function and mission of my brain was to enjoy that dinner and remember the flavor that still makes me slobber today. Looking around me, I noticed that no one put down their chopsticks. All kept their chopsticks clasped between their fingers either plunging food slices into the pot or into their mouths. Vapor rose from the hot pot and threw itself onto our faces as we ate; the red broth mirrored in our red cheeks.
Hot pot has developed to become such a mature culture nowadays in China: it is all about creativity and the procedure. The first step is to choose your favorite broth. The most typical ones are spicy broth, beef tallow clear broth, and mushroom broth. And then you can choose what you want to put into the hot pot, like slices of lotus roots, spinach, dried pieces of bean curd, and one of my personal favorites, “frozen tofu”: after being put into the freezer, the tofu becomes percolated with holes which better absorb the flavors of the broth. Next step, make your own side sauce. There is always a table in a hot pot restaurant with more than ten kinds of sauces on it, including regular ones like soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil, and also special ones like satay barbecue sauce from Indonesia, which is the best match for beef, and chopped capsicum frutescens to enhance the spicy flavor for those people obsessed with spicy food or oyster sauce to neutralize the spicy broth a little bit. You can pick up a small sauce bowl and fill it with those sauces you like. Then you are perfectly ready for a soul-shaking feast. Besides the flavor of hot pot, this interesting and creative way to dine adds so much more interactions between people and gives them plenty of time to talk, to chat, to laugh, and to spend a great time together.
Food in China, as you can see, contains much more than just food: we eat zongzi (a pyramid-shaped dim sum: sticky rice wrapped by bamboo leaves) for Duanwu Festival (also called dragon boat festival) to cherish the memory of a great poet; we drink chrysanthemum wine for Double Ninth Festival to wish the elder people in our families to be safe and healthy, and we have a big dinner at Chinese New Year’s Eve to celebrate this rare reunion for the whole family. For Chinese people who might have less tendency to express their deep affections verbally, food has become such an important and wonderful way to express those good wishes and the desperation to want to reunite.
At this moment, after reading what I just wrote down, the memory of the last Chinese New Year suddenly flashed across my mind. That was the first time that I did not spend New Year’s Eve with my family. They were having that big dinner for the celebration, and at that time the spring semester had begun and I, just like now, was sitting in front of my computer in my dorm. I had a long video call with the my family at the other end of the phone, and they all said hello and waved at me smiling. My grandpa asked about everything: how is the weather? It must be so cold. Is your coat warm enough? How is school? How is the food in the cafeterias? Do you have time to cook for yourself?…Although I was not there, those delicious dishes on the table in the screen that my family had prepared for a whole day reminded me of my grandma’s figure when she was cooking, my mother’s hand that had put a bowl of steaming soup in front of me, my father’s laugh when he was drinking and, of course, they reminded me of their deep unspoken love.
Artwork by Hannah Latham
Edited by Emma Bourgeois