Think of some atmospheric places to eat a meal. On a vineyard as the sun sets. Outside on a bustling Parisian street. In a candelit room, with velvet curtains and soft music.
I’m betting that what didn’t pop into your mind was sitting in front of a volcano spurting burning lava everywhere in sight. Or maybe it did. Maybe you’re familiar with Sichuan hot pot.
Last week, Side Dish and I tried the new Sichuan hot pot restaurant on Glebe Point Road. When we were seated, I couldn’t help but notice there was a giant hole in the middle of the table, from which I was sure, any second now, flame would spurt.
Side Dish and I looked at the menu. We were at a loss, so when the waitress came to ask if we were ready, I explained our predicament.
“Hi, sorry, but we’ve never had hot pot before.”
She happily explained. Simply choose your broth (half spicy/half chicken or spicy or chicken), and then choose the ingredients that you want to cook in your broth.
She recommended going for the half spicy/half chicken broth, so we could control the heat. I said “Oh, we like spicy food”, and she smiled and said, “Really?” Now, remember this exchange, because it will be relevant soon. And boy will you laugh.
She also recommended getting one meat and one seafood, plus two or three vegetable ingredients. And she recommended a dipping sauce, of which there are about nine to choose from. She then left to let us decide.
We decided to listen to her judgement and get the half/half broth. We also decided on the beef and prawns (“Good choices”, she smiled), plus choy sum, oyster mushrooms, handmade noodles and two dipping sauces. And spicy dumplings to start. Because we like spicy food.
Dumplings swimming in a chilli bath.
The dumplings were filled with a plain pork mince, however their oily, herby, chilli sauce held all the flavour. I found the best tactic was to break open the dumpling in the bowl, let a bit of the sauce mixture seep into the inside, and then eat it. Delicious.
Then came the hot pot, with all the trimmings. Thin pieces of beef, frozen and rolled for quick cooking, the prawns, a basket of greens, mushrooms, noodles and the sauces. The pot was put in the centre of the table, the gas lit (eep!) and we were told to wait til it started bubbling before cooking.
This watched pot did boil, and before long we were adding ingredients. We decided to do prawns in the chicken broth and meat in the spicy broth.
We started with some prawns, and made sure we didn’t overcook them. They were plump and tender, and a great start. Buoyed by our first attempt, I decided to try some spicy broth. I spooned some into my bowl, with beef and choy sum and took a sip.
I looked at Side Dish.
I sneezed. I sneezed!
“Side Dish,” I gasped. “SIDE DISH! This is really hot.”
I need to save my reputation here. I can handle spicy food. I can handle it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon tea (chilli jam on scones, anyone?). But I had met my match.
Guess which side is which. Go on. guess.
This broth was the Superman of soups, with one half being the mild-mannered, chicken and vegetable, spectacles-wearing Clark Kent, with the other half being the super-spicy, strength of a thousand warriors, able-to-spin-the-
And Superman bettered me. The spicy broth seemed to be a mixture of chilli oil, numbing Sichuan chillies, the breath of the Devil, more chillies, magma, peppercorns and concentrated chilli juice.
We continued, bravely, dunking ingredients in the bubbling broth, transferring them to our bowls and letting them cool before eating, but there were some moments –as the bubbling pot crackled and hissed in front of us, I burnt my hand reaching for the noodles, the steam rose and filled our sinuses, and the food in our bowls was too hot to even contemplate eating – that I did wonder what the hot pot fuss was about.
When we finally finished, we couldn’t figure out if it was because we were full, or because we were tired of cooking. We staggered out of the restaurant, clutching our stomachs at the immense quantity of chilli we had consumed.
After reflecting in the chilli haze that followed, I decided we’d done a few things wrong. Firstly, we’d eaten too much of the broth. A rookie mistake, I’m sure, as towards the end we looked around and saw people using their chopsticks a lot more than their spoons. Eating less broth probably would have resulted in less of the extreme chilli. Second, I think hot pot is a great meal when you have a group of people and you’re keen for an interactive food. It’s less good if two of you just want a weeknight dinner. Third, although it is August, it’s not cold in Sydney at the moment. A hot pot rich in chilli would be just the thing for a chilly winter night.
Everything we ate was mighty tasty, especially the beef and the house dipping sauce, however we got a little overwhelmed. I’m keen to experience a hot pot again, but with the above in mind. I’m just waiting for the next time I’m in the mood for lava.
Red Chilli Sichuan Hot Pot Restaurant
15 Glebe Point Road
Ph: (02) 9518 5328
About two weeks ago I returned to Red Chilli, armed with another diner (bringing us to a party of three) and a wealth of knowledge about tackling the hot pot. We ordered similar things - the half and half broth, sliced beef, fish, choy sum, mushrooms, noodles, plus the dumplings and the spring onion pancake to start.
When the hot pot arrived, Side Dish and I explained the procedure, "Ok, so cook the beef in the burning boiling liquid, then fish it out with the chopsticks, with as little liquid as possible, then eat it. No, don't drink the liquid you fool! Only an idiot would do that..."
We had a great experience, and left full, happy, and with all our internal organs intact. A successful meal, indeed.