So my host family ordered hot pot for dinner the other night, which is a novel idea in itself. That is to say, my mother placed an order online, and not long after, a delivery man knocked on our apartment door with a massive box, containing all the components of a Sichuan-style hotpot meal. I guess, if you have a strong but isolated online infrastructure, near full employment, and a love of spicy foods, anything can be arranged. Thanks, China.
As my mom unpacks the box, a hotpot restaurant begins to take form right on our kitchen table, complete with a portable, tabletop hotpot burner. The hearty smell and arranged components on the table accelerate my hunger, right as my host mom fills the pot up with broth. It looks like the same broth we had tried to avoid in Chengdu, blood red from the amount of spice. I don’t think much of it, though, after all, I had been among the only people in our group who could stomach the spicy broth. So I sit at the table eagerly.
My family joins me and we begin to eat. And, let me tell you, it is as deeply spicy as it appears—possibly more. A single bite feels somewhat harmless. Just the desirable amount of spice. But with each subsequent bite, the feeling intensifies. It’s delicious, so I don’t slow down, but my mouth is tingling and my lips are numb from the Sichuan peppercorns. The pot is boiling violently, and spicy steam is filling the room, strong enough to make me cough. Red broth splatters on the table.
The irony of it all crosses my mind. Just the previous night, my host mom had praised my spice tolerance. “It’s good they match you with me,” she had exclaimed. “Most Yunnan families eat simple foods [motioning to the steamed cabbage], but my family like spicy and flavorful.” She was noting my propensity to dive straight into the most spicy dish, which I almost always praised. “It’s not hot for you at all?” she would ask. It never was.
But now it seems she has found my limit.
I sit sheepishly for a few minutes forcing meat and vegetables down my throat—it’s still delicious, after all. But midway through the meal, to my relief, my mom reveals that I’m not the only one suffering. “It’s too hot!” She slams her hand down on the table as she speaks. She explains that it’s their first time trying this restaurant, and that it is the spiciest hotpot even she has had. Grandma reacts differently, running upstairs and returning with a giant bottle of Coke, which she then proceeds to pour into individual bowls for us. Then, she starts grabbing other foods: a sliced watermelon; leftover zucchini; a roast duck. I truly don’t know how she emerged with all this food so quickly.
We eat the other foods along side our hotpot main course, and they help alleviate the spice. With each bite of hotpot, my host mom mumbles, under her breath, “terrible, terrible,” but she keeps eating it nonetheless. The pot boils. We eat until full.
The meal comes to a close. And just as the numbness of my lips fades, my mom sits back in her chair, looks at the plethora of leftover broth, and says: “Okay, we have this again tomorrow?”
P.S. I should add that this whole story took place while wearing giant plastic bibs, provided with the hotpot delivery. Unreal, China.