The authentic Chinese Restaurant Nihao XiaoChi, located in Calle Silva Just off the Gran Via in Madrid, closed down a few months ago. It has since resurfaced as Nihao Huoguo in the same street. The food is still great with the added plus that real Sichuan dishes have been added to the menu.
The Chef is from Chongqing and will happily make the authentic fiery Sichuan Huoguo (Sichuan hot pot). See you there!
Huo Guo 火锅, the fiery hot pot from Sichuan and Chongqing, is undoubtedly one of those great culinary experiences you should try when you visit China. It’s not a meal to have on your own, but something to share and savour in the company of friends. I’ve found that between 4 – 6 diners is about the perfect number, but on many occasions it’s simply a case of ‘the more the merrier’.
What exactly is a Huoguo?
A Huoguo is a giant pot of boiling broth to which you keep adding the fresh ingredients you have previously selected from the menu. Accompanying the Huoguo there are a variety of dips into which you dunk the ingredients, once they are cooked. The creamy, sesame sauce dip is the most popular and definitely our favourite. However, in Chengdu you will often find a sharper, sesame oil dip, heavily laced with garlic.
The original hot pots from Chongqing
The original hot pots from Chongqing only came with one option: a bubbling bowl of red- hot liquid filled with chillies, Sichuan peppercorns and other pungent spices. In fact, it was a real case of ‘the spicier the better’. The massive increase in domestic and international tourism in China has resulted in a number of adaptations to the original Huoguo, with many hot pots having their spiciness toned down to suit the palates of the uninitiated and inexperienced; those people whose stomachs would be at serious risk if they were to eat the original thing.
Nowadays, a typical Huoguo bowl comes with a partition: one side is red and hot, while the other is a white and mild broth with hardly any spices. This type of Huoguo goes under various names, such as ‘Hong-Bai’ (Red & White), or ‘Yin and Yang’, as the bowl resembles the Taoist symbol. Moreover, many waiters and waitresses will discuss the required degree of spiciness with their customers, as if they were asking how the customer would like their coffee.
The foremost and original Huoguo ingredient is meat (in fact, the traditional Mongolian hotpot, which is slightly different from what I’m describing here, is almost entirely meat-based), wafer thin slices of either lamb or beef, although nowadays you can put almost anything in a hotpot. Popular options include prawns, squid, fish balls, tiny eels, boiled quails eggs, different types of mushrooms, cabbage, cauliflower and other vegetables, as well as thin noodles. The noodles usually go in last and are drunk with the remainder of the broth as a soup.
Types of Huoguo:
There are different types of Huoguo restaurants. The cheaper ones, which can be found all over the smaller streets of Sichuan’s cities and towns, as well as Chongqing and its environs, are generally run in two ways. Your first option is a buffet, where you pay a fixed price which covers the Huoguo itself and as many ingredients as you wish to put in: you just go up to the buffet table and take whatever you want, and you can repeat this process until you are ready to explode.
In the second type of establishment you take a basket and fill it with your choice of ingredients, all of which are stuck on skewers, and cook them in your hotpot. When you ask for the bill, the waiter counts the empty skewers and you pay according to how many you have taken. Some skewers are marked, so that for example a skewer with prawns will cost more than one with seaweed. It is always cheap, but you might want to establish the price first before going over the top. A spicy chilli oil or sesame sauce dip will accompany the food.
The more upmarket Huoguo restaurants give you a wide choice of soup stocks, such as fish head, hot and sour, extra hot, etc. and a wide range of dips. There is usually a menu card on which you tick the ingredients and the number of portions you want. These menu cards can be a bit daunting if you don’t speak Chinese, but you can always point to what other tables have ordered!
Beware of the Beer Girls!
A common feature of Huoguo restaurants in Sichuan are the ‘beer girls’ (pijiu xiaojie). As soon as you sit down, you’ll be mobbed by skimpily clad girls, most of them in cowgirl outfits complete with mini-skirts and boots, fighting over the right to plonk bottles of beer on your table. Each girl represents a different brand, and before deciding on which beer to order, ask about the price first, as these can vary considerably, depending on the brand and type. Also make sure it’s ice- cold (bing pijiu), as lukewarm Chinese beer and a Huoguo are not a good match. Come September, it gets increasingly difficult to persuade the Chinese that a beer has to be cold and once winter has arrived, you can just about forget it.
My Favourite Huoguo Restaurants:
Chishui, Guizhou Province:
A big modern Huoguo restaurant near the Chishui river. The only pure vegetarian Huoguo I’ve ever had. The friendly owner understood my question and prepared a spicy broth from vegetable stock. The ingredients were incredibly fresh and varied.
Leshan, Sichuan Province:
The street Huoguo in any of the small side streets, all of these are of the ‘grab-a-basket and pick-and-choose-your-skewer’ variety. Choose the first one that grabs your fancy and join the locals for some serious noshing and beer drinking.
Anshun, Guizhou: I had this Huoguo at the night market, it wasn’t my favourite, but the hottest by miles. We realised we were in trouble when the cook dropped a great lump of solidified chilli oil into the pot and we watched in disbelief as it sank beneath a sea of floating chillies and Sichuan peppercorns.
If you’re in Beijing and fancy trying a Huoguo, the restaurants on Dongzhimen Xijie, known by the locals as ‘Gui Jie’, are the best place in town. There are loads of restaurants to choose from, all of which stay open until late at night, and even in 2006 it remained an authentic Beijing-er eating area, though you can find expats and tourists as well. Beijing people are extremely fussy when it comes to food, which is why the quality of the ingredients here tends to be excellent. Moreover, some of these restaurants are taking the hotpot to new culinary heights, with three or four different stocks in one pot!