At the conclusion of Pt.1, it is fair to say that I didn’t come away from my first trip to China with a high opinion of the eating experience. But this was not as much a condemnation of the food and culture as it was about being completely outside of my epicurean comfort zone. For those who already know the whole story of my relationship with Chinese food know that this story has a happy ending. But that enlightenment was still four years into the future. This part of the journey is in 2015 and as I was preparing for my second trip to China, I was already gearing myself up for a week of gastronomical purgatory. As I soon would find out, if Hell were a food, it would be at the bottom of a Chongqing hot pot.
December 2015. Chongqing
The day I arrived in Chongqing was the first time spending a day in China completely by myself. My host colleagues would arrive the next day. No one dictating my schedule or picking my meals. I hadn’t done any prior research and had no idea what was in Chongqing. I had cards prepared by the hotel desk to give to the taxi driver to tell him where to go, and I just had to hope that the calligraphy wasn’t misspelled. Remembering the attention my facial hair got two years earlier in Beijing, I came prepared with about as full of a beard as I can muster. So me and my stare magnet went into full stranger in a strange land mode and started exploring the city.
Chongqing is a massive city of almost 9 million people. Westerners may know the city by it’s romanized name, Chungking, but I can’t help but feel icky… icky like a 1940’s Hollywood actor dawning eyelid prosthetics in a Charlie Chan movie icky… when I think of the romanized versions of Chinese city names. The real pronunciation is more like Chong’-chin where the last g seems to be silent, although I am pretty sure I have been pronouncing it for the last five years.
For World War II buffs, Chongqing has the really interesting distinction as being the London of China during World War II. Like London, it was the military headquarters and capital and was ruthlessly bombed for five years. Instead of Churchill versus Nazi Germany, we have Chiang Kai-shek versus Imperial Japan. Westerners tend to forget that China was an ally. American General Joseph Stillwell was stationed in Chongqing during the war. Two of the main war sites in the city are the Stillwell Museum and Libiza Park – Relics of the Anti-Japanese War. The war is also known as the Second Sino-Japanese War and in fact was already going on by the time Hitler invaded Poland. Then Pearl Harbor happened, and you know the rest.
The main attraction in the city center is the Three Gorges Museum which focuses on the progression of civilization in the region and the natural wonder of its river systems.
So there I was, having a perfectly good time. Minding my own business, strolling thru the streets and squares, smiling and waving, waving and smiling. Everyone I passed smiled and waved back. I honestly don’t remember what I ate that day. I tremble when I look back at that moment though. Is it my lack of memory or something more sinister? Trauma perhaps? For, the next morning, my colleagues showed up, and behind their cherubic smiles was a diabolical plot to inflict punishment to my digestive system that I could never have possibly imagined.
The Chongqing Hot Pot
What lay before me simmered like a cauldron of Hell.
The hand of Satan himself stirred the steaming cesspit of boiling acid, while a thumbs up mocked me with false assurance. As it reached the height of its venomous frothing, the ingredients of this sadistic meal were placed around it. Each one would be submerged into its vile depths and then consumed. Oh, there were starchy vegetables, bits of beef or pork to lure you, but each meal brought new and nauseating horrors. Pig brains, goose neck lining, cow stomach… And then there was the taste…
The first bite from the hot pot would numb the tongue. Every subsequent morsel became more incendiary than the one before it until the pain spread to the lips. Tears welled in my eyes like I had witnessed a thousand deaths. I tried to swish beer around in my mouth followed by mouthfuls of rice, more beer, more rice. Nothing would ease the searing burn and numbness. It seemed Biblically appropriate that I would endure this assault for three days and three nights.
At the beginning of one of the meals, I was relieved to see something a little different in the center of the table. Like a chicken broth. I thought, salvation! I anxiously reached my spoon towards the pot.
Oh, what horror is this?!
After the third straight evening of Chongqing hot pot, I was mercifully released from the pits of digestive damnation. And if there was a salvation, I wasn’t going to find it in Chongqing as long as my sadistic hosts had anything to say about it. Fortunately I was off to a new place. A place called Chengdu.
December 2015. Chengdu
Beijing may have the most wow sites, but Chengdu was the city that won over my heart. A city of over 10 million people, Chengdu feels cozier than that. It seems to be a city that embraces nature and parks. I was fortunate to have a free afternoon prior to my departure back to Belgium to take a walk around the city. I was enthralled by its beauty. When I look back at all my trips to China, it is Chengdu I wish to return to the most. But my walk around the city did not come without a price. It was this stroll where I noticed an unusual pain in my right knee which would later be diagnosed as a meniscus tear and require surgery in 2016. To this day, I blame it on the Chongqing hot pot and I will take on anyone who wishes to debate me on that. Even without a blue sky, the city was full of autumn-like color… in December.
But as much as I enjoyed the city of Chengdu, there was one distinction it holds that was even more memorable. Approximately 80% of the world’s population of Giant Pandas lives in the Sichuan Province of which Chengdu is the capital. Many of these are protected within the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding for the hopes of both preserving the endangered species and expanding the population in the wild. The older I get, the less comfortable I feel about looking at wild animals in captivity, but I always got the feeling that the facility is honestly trying to provide quality living conditions and a natural habitat in an effort to keep this amazing creature alive on our corrupt planet. Does anyone dare to argue that the Giant Panda isn’t the most adorable and cuddly living being that the Earth has ever seen? I thought not. Salvation at last.
Chengdu saw the return to the normal multi-dish dinner table. No more hot pot to disintegrate my mouth and intestines. It is probably this relief in having normal Chinese food again that possibly foreshadowed the transformation that would come in my next trip to China in 2019. This transformation was imperative to my survival in what would be a grueling business trip. I needed to learn to love the food. I was not introduced to the blue butterfly in December 2015, but I am beginning to feel like perhaps somewhere in all of those amazing and sometimes gastronomically challenging experiences during this trip in 2015 was a humble caterpillar just waiting to blossom.