The world has fallen in love with Szechuan cuisine. At least on the London, New York and KL circuit (which is some distance) everyone's going on about the yin-yang hotpot (or steamboat as us Malaysians call it). We seem addicted to the fiery, peppery, numbing concoction which is achieved by mixing exorbitant amounts of Szechuan peppercorns (or prickly ash, according to mainland Chinese) to give us ma (numbing, tingly); and dried chillies for la (heat). Other key ingredients are fermented chilli bean paste, black beans, ginger and garlic to add different layers of spice and heat.
Everyone in Beijing knows Haidilao, a reputable Szechuan hotpot (huoguo) chain famed for it's huge array of hotpot ingredients and excellent service. We got to the Haidian outlet as soon as school finished for the day as the queues are known to be horrendous. If one is ever stuck waiting though, there are free manicures and video games to keep you entertained!
Once we were seated, it was non-stop action from start to finish. Donned with aprons to protect us from splatter, the staff could not do enough to help us enjoy our meal. Note: if you wear glasses, you get complimentary cloths to wipe your lenses!
In went the ma-la mixture to kick-off the continuous eruptions in front of us. With yin-yang huoguo, the red soup on the outer container is a nuclear bath of spices, where the inner ring holds a soothing delicate broth. Rather than dip food into both, only the spicy soup is used to cook one's food where the broth is drunk plain to counter the heat.
I've also never had huoguo where you can make your own dipping sauce. It sounds far-fetched, but there were probably at least thirty different ingredients and condiments to choose from: garlic, ginger, different types of chillies, different bean pastes, tofu, coriander, spring onions, chives, sesame pastes and nuts!
There were so many stellar food bits: slender meat slices, a variety of mushrooms, crunchy bamboo shoots, fungus, seaweed. Everything was fresh and full of flavour. The modus operandi is to cook your ingredient in the boiling spice broth, dip it into your custom made sauce and enjoy. I thought there may have been too many complex flavours competing with each other, but somehow it all went together to create foodie fireworks.
And let's not forget the more adventurous ingredients like stomach and duck's blood. Ignore the feathery texture of the stomach, don't cook it for too long in case it gets tough, and it's actually rather tasty. Duck's blood is like a flavoured tofu: those who like liver will take a shine to this. My fantastic hosts M and XD tell me a Chinese proverb: Bu shenme, chi shenme, which translates to "Eat what you don't have". If you have bad digestion, eat stomach. If you have bad memory, eat brain. Perhaps there's more to strange Chinese eating habits!
Call it a novelty, but seeing this server hand-pulling noodles and making a performance out of it put a big smile on my face. Like a flying ribbon, this noodle is made longer and longer as he swirls its through the air before dropping it into our red lava.
We must have devoured the entire menu, which was superbly delectable. A vast number of ingredients, a Harbin beer each and incredibly attentive service was circa RMB100 per head.
Haidilou Hotpot Restaurant Huanyuan Lu Branch
No.2, Huayuan East Road, Haidian District