If you're trying to work your way through the gamut of archaetypal Sichuan dishes there's no way you can forget the hotpot. As with any hotpot meat and veg of your choice are dropped into simmering liquid and given a few minutes to cook at the table before being removed and eaten. Where the Sichuan hotpot differs from most is its choice of liquid, the common one being an obscenely fiery mix of stock, oil, dried chillies and Sichuan pepper. It's so spiced and fiery that drinking it is out the question, the drops that cling to the morsels, let alone a mouthful of it, being enough to bring a tear to your eye. For those of a less fireproof disposition you can get your hot pot ying yang, half hot and half plain stock. By the end of the meal spillage tends to render the plain stock a tad spicy too though.
Since earlier epsiodes of near impossible ordering in restaurants I've taken to studying the English Chinese dictionary and have learnt a fair few Chinese symbols for food. There's a big long list of meats and veggies that I now recognise so at least I have some idea what I'm ordering. Most of the time I've no idea how it will be prepared but at least I know I'm getting pork and bak choi, and not more cucumber. My dining companions knew this and so I was given full charge of the menu, a position I relish. If they were close friends they'd have been in trouble (I've memorised a fair few bits of offal in Chinese too) but as they were poeple I'd only met a few hours before in the hostel I was pretty kind, just one bit of animal inside in the form of brown (she said she had a green one too?) tripe. Joining the tripe was pork, beef, lamb, Chinese cabbage, beancurd skin, water spinach and bamboo shoot. The waitress pushed me towards some fish and I went with her on it, even though my lack of fish symbol knowledge left me fairly clueless as to what we would receive.
We cracked on and it all went down remarkably well, even the tripe was eaten by everyone. The pork was already battered and cooked, the coating going wobbly with simmering and soaking up lots of the fiery liquor. The beancurd skin came in rather chopstick unfriendly pieces, probably 20cm long and a complete nightmare to navigate into the mouth once cooked. We'd all had quite a good fill by the time the late arriving fish made an appearance. I was expecting some finely trimmed fillets, bite-sized portions perfect for a quick dip and nibble. I couldn't have been further from the truth as an entire catfish, probably weighing near a kilo turned up.
They'd had the decency to fillet it, and split the head in half for those wanting a ferret around inside the skull, but bite-size it wasn't. Luckily a waitress spotted our bewildered faces and came over to the do the cooking of it for us. I'd heard catfish was muddy tasting but here no hint of mud was going to get past the crimson broth, a broth so spicy that by the end of it the numbness in my lips had spread half way across one cheek where I'd been wiping my mouth dry with the back of my hand.