Hotpot and Beyond: Inside Chongqing’s Fiery Food Scene

This is Part 2 in my series on Chongqing. For the rest, continue reading via the links below!

I: Chongqing: An Introduction
I: Sampling the Delights of Sichuan Cuisine
II: Adventures in Modern Chongqing
IV: Exploring Chongqing’s Old Town
V: Hotel Review: Westin Chongqing Liberation Square

When in Chongqing, experiencing its food culture should be at the top of your list. The dining scene here is on fire, literally.

Ever heard of Chinese hotpot? Yeah, that was invented here. It all started hundreds of years ago, when dockhands working on the many ships lined along the Yangtze River were running short on food. In times of food scarcity, sailors would take what scraps of food they had and drench them in a flavourful, fiery broth characterised by the local Sichuan pepper. This trend eventually migrated upwrd from manual laborers to the middle class, and now it’s a dish enjoyed by people from all walks of life around the world.

Hop off at any metro station during the evening rush hour on any night of the week, and you’ll immediately be inundated with the intense, fragrant smell of the Sichuan pepper. You can find a hotpot restaurant on every block, and they’re all generally packed with patrons, the smell of chili oil wafting through the air like some otherworldly being.

Sichuan cuisine is varied and complex, but if we’re generalising, it can be summed up as follows: there’s hotpot, and then everything else – but everything is doused with a healthy helping of the famous Sichuan pepper. The flavour of the Sichuan pepper is intense. It’s like a jalapeño, but 10 times spicier. At the same time, though, it’s got a fragrant smell, and if you’re doing it right, the pepper will simply numb your tongue so you can’t feel anything at all (which might be a plus, for some!) Most restaurants here are generally of a similar quality here, so don’t be afraid to pop into one if you’re out exploring!

If you want hotpot, there’s few places to go better than Hongyadong, a surreal complex of restaurants, bars, cafes, and local markets all located inside a massive complex that looks like an ancient temple. Hongyadong is situated on the border of Jiefangbei, Chongqing’s CBD, and it’s easily accessible from any part of the city.

You’ll know you’ve reached Hongyadong when you run into a massive building that looks like this:

Once there, head up to the 4th level, which has several hotpot restaurants. Stop into any of them, and prepare to feast on one of the spiciest (yet most delicious) meals of your life.

In China, hotpot isn’t just a meal, it’s an intensely social experience. Just like sharing a meal with a friend, I find that I prefer splitting hotpot with someone as it encourages conversation, gives both persons something to talk about, and hey – you even get to cook the ingredients yourself. Even better, ingredients are almost always extremely fresh, which is sometimes a rarity in this part of China. How delicious does this look?

After that, I’d recommend strolling around Hongyadong for a bit longer – you could probably spend an entire evening there, if you wanted. It’s a great primer to Sichuan cuisine, as it also has an open-air night market which rivals anything I’ve seen in other Chinese cities. It’s a great place to sample all sorts of dishes from Chongqing’s food culture. The street vendors here can rival the best hawker stalls in Singapore, and that’s really saying something.

One dish definitely worth trying is the freshly-caught, grilled seafood served on skewers. They’re coated in Sichuan spices, and then cooked over an open fire. Absolutely delicious.

If you’re looking for something more conventional, tuck into a comforting bowl of soup, mixed with fresh fish and a variety of tasty herbs (there are spicy and non-spicy versions, for those of you looking to avoid the mighty Sichuan pepper!)

Finally, I’d recommend capping off the night with a cocktail at this bar, also located in Hongyadong. The drinks are excellent, and the location is magnificent – situated right on the banks of the Yangtze, looking out across the river towards one of Chongqing’s many business districts. It’s an unforgettable place, and the setting sort of reminded me of Blade Runner.

Chongqing’s dining scene is booming, and many foreign eateries are also popping up – think Japanese bakeries, French eclair shops, and more – yet in my opinion, the fiery appeal of Sichuan cuisine still remains supreme. If you’re only in Chongqing for a short stay, I’d highly recommend focusing on sampling the many delights of the local cuisine, and check out some of the more international spots only if you have more time or can’t handle spicy food.

One can’t visit Chongqing without trying its delicious cuisine – indeed, many domestic tourists come here purely for the food! Reflecting back on my visit, I can say that trying Sichuan cuisine in its place of origin was truly a highlight for me. Chongqing’s food scene is about so much more than just food. It’s a multi-sensory experience, and a fiery assault on the senses in the best of ways. Dive into hotpot (and so much more) as soon as possible after arriving – you won’t regret it.