Let it be known that you are headed to Chengdu and you will be told: "Don't miss the hot pot!"
"Make time for hot pot!"
"Be sure to eat hot pot!"
"You gotta have hot pot!"
"I hear the hot pot's amazing!"
Hot pot hot pot hot pot hot pot hot pot hot pot hot pot hot pot.
The truth? Sichuan-style hot pot, a variation on Mongolian hot pot or steamboat that replaces the boiling water in which various items are cooked with oil floating chilies and spices, is not Chengdu's culinary superstar.
Even though it was allegedly invented in Chongqing, hot pot is all over the place in Chengdu. Some streets are lined with what seems to be nothing but huge hot pot emporiums.
A variation on the hot pot theme is chuan-chuan. The name refers to the wooden sticks that ingredients are threaded on. The larger chuan-chuan restaurants are equipped with big walk-in refrigerators, from which you select from 30 or more skewered ingredients, piling the laden sticks up on cafeteria-style plastic trays. At the end of the meal your table is charged according to how many used sticks have accumulated in the container next to it.
Chuan-chuan is fun -- the perfect lazy-meal way to pass an evening with friends -- and it can be tasty and quite cheap. It's good post-bar hopping food, the way a Burger King whopper can be. But in the end, even if the ingredients are stellar, you're cooking them in a big vat of oil. And sometimes that oil has sinister origins, so when it comes to hot pot and chuan-chuan you really need to be careful where you eat.
Still, the idea -- your own personal selection of ingredients cooked in liquid imbued with chilies and Sichuan peppercorns and other characteristic Sichuanese spices -- does hold great appeal.
Enter mao cai.
Think of mao cai as a single-serving personalized hot pot. The mao cai vendor -- like this woman, working out of a several meter-by-several meter shop in an alley in Chengdu -- has three essential pieces of equipment: a big-ass burner (here, fashioned from an oil drum), an equally large pot, and a handled sieve.
In the pot:broth topped with a thin skim of oil. This lady boils chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, cassia, bay leaves, false cardamom, ginger and other bits for two hours before opening shop.
Stacked on shelves inside the shop, a choice of ingredients:
sliced dried dofu - cucumber - winter melon - oyster mushrooms
bok choy - blood 'pudding' - konnyaku slices - rice 'jelly' noodles
bean sprouts - potato - lotus root
sweet potato noodles - strips of sea vegetable - wood ear fungus
Assembling your meal is as easy as pointing. She grabs a handful of whatever you choose to add to your mao cai, places it in her handled sieve, and lowers it -- each ingredient separately, to get the cooking time right -- into the bubbling cauldron, then deposits it into a bowl. At the end, it's all doused with a few ladles of fragrant broth. Black vinegar, soy sauce, and chili oil at the table are yours to add as you wish.
The end result is hot pot-ish but better. The same big flavor, the same unique-to-you selection of ingredients, but less greasy and easier to eat.
Heading to Chengdu? Skip the hot pot. But do learn to recognize the characters for mao cai: