Before there was Sudafed, there was Sichuan hot pot. Central China's answer to fondue, a steaming pot of fiery broth, bobbing with dried chilis and peppercorns is a powerful decongestant. I guess I wasn't the only person feeling the effects of the sudden temperature drop, because, the other night, hot pot stronghold Grand Sichuan in Chinatown was hoppin'.
Here's how it works:
1. Choose a broth (plain chicken stock, crimson chili soup, or a yin-yang of both.) A camping stove keeps the pot at a constant simmer.
2. Select your raw ingredients from an extensive list of meats, veggies, dumplings and noodles, and pick one or more dipping sauces.
3. Your chopsticks double as cooking implements, as you dip raw meat into the soup for quick poaching; longer-cooking items, like fishballs and wontons, are retrieved with a little mesh basket.
4. Feel your nasal passages expand. Sweat, possibly cry.
5.The liquid will take on all the flavors of the different ingredients. Hot pot cognoscenti end the meal with a noodle soup made from the enriched broth.
Deli-thin raw beef ($7.95) is a popular choice, but I found that the gamy flavor of raw lamb ($7.95) is better equipped to hold its own in the chili bath. For the adventurous, there are uncommon offerings like beef tripe and sliced duck gizzards (both $5.95.) So the hot pot doesn't become an all-out fleshfest, round out your red meat with items of contrasting textures, like chewy fishballs ($6.95) and puffy cubes of fried tofu ($4.95), which soak up the broth like little sponges. When it comes to vegetables, a relatively hardy contender like napa cabbage ($4.95) will do better than spinach ($4.95), which quickly disintegrates. Finally, all ingredients benefit from a dip in the house garlic sauce ($1.50), a potent gloop of smashed garlic, sesame oil, bean paste, and, yes, more chili.
Grand Sichuan does have a full menu, but hot pot is by far the most popular choice. If you do order à la carte, stick to the small section at the very back of the menu labeled "Mao Zedong's Favorite Dishes". (This is a little cheeky on the establishment's part, as Chairman Mao was from Hunan, not Sichuan, but his love for spice was legendary.) One such dish is the string beans with pepper sauce ($5.95): oily, blistered beans, deftly seasoned, with minced pork and slivered chilis. The Chairman would have approved.
"You can't be a revolutionary if you don't eat chilis." -- Mao Zedong
125 Canal St #4, New York, NY 10002 (map)
Note: Confusingly, the Grand Sichuan in Chinatown is not affiliated with the other Manhattan restaurants that share its name.