Hot pot! (火鍋)

Tonight we went to Chinatown in lower Manhattan to eat huo guo (火鍋)-- Sichuan hotpot -- with some of my husband's classmates. Hotpot is something like fondue, except that instead of oil or cheese, you get a large pot of spicy, steaming broth (and small gas burner) to cook your ingredients right there on the table. Hotpot is one of my favorite Chinese foods; we ate it often in Beijing in late-night dinners that we shared with friends, and Chuan and I even traveled to Sichuan during our time there, before the devastating earthquake. I love the variety of ingredients, the two different ma and la flavors (one makes your lips tingle; the other clears your sinuses), and the communal feel of huo guo.

The one problem with hotpot, for me, is that there are no portions, no courses, and no end to the meal. Even now, when I eat hotpot in New York, I have to remind myself to take my time. And even then I keep telling myself to slow down, to look around, to engage in conversation, to focus on the company, all throughout the course of the meal. Tonight was difficult in that respect, because I didn't know my company very well, and I felt more like a wifely appendage than a dinner companion in her own right. But focus I did, and I got through the meal, occupied more by reminiscences of China than by the conversation.

Coincidentally, the weather today in New York City reminded me of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, which is known for its humid, foggy weather, its beautiful women, and its spicy foods. Lower Manhattan was covered in fog and mist this evening; we could have been eating hotpot in any Chengdu eatery, and no one would have known the difference by stepping outside onto the city streets.

All of Sichuan, in my memory, appears wet and flowing, its rivers and fragrant broths confounded. In Chinese, "sì chuān" means "four rivers," and the province is indeed criss-crossed by waterways. Sichuan, even inland, is a land of water. (My husband's name, Chuan, comes from the same word: 川 in Chinese.)

We ate wonderful mushroom hotpot in Chengdu's restaurants, and visited poetic shrines and ancient battlegrounds, but we both agreed that the most interesting part of Sichuan was further north, closer to the border with Tibet, where yak's milk replaces tea as the most common drink.

These photos are from Jiu Zai Gou ("Nine Villages"), a scenic area in the mountains of Sichuan. Most of the people who live there speak a language that is closer to Tibetan than to Mandarin, and many are practicing Buddhists. We visited in autumn, right before the trees changed colors, and spent several days living with one of these families in the foothills of the Himalayas. I remember waking up early in the morning, seeing my breath hover above the comforter, and hearing the faint sounds of gongs -- monks in prayer.

In China, we visited Buddhist shrines and paid our respects to the ancestors (Chuan's ancestors) wherever we went. I remember standing side by side with the man who would become my husband, burning incense and lighting candles as offerings. I knew that it was right that we were there together, a man born in China showing a woman from Minnesota how to approach the shrine. And then I told him something, about what the Buddhist images meant -- the wheel, the lotus, the knot-- and how Tibet and China fit together (or didn't) in Buddhist history.

These things were going through my head tonight as I watched the last pieces of mutton go into the hotpot; as I debated whether to eat more or to stop; and as I paid polite attention to the conversation around me. All of these things made up my meal, in Buddhist fashion, the past coming to greet the present, the present looking towards the future. And if that isn't a good meal, a pleasant communion, I don't know what else is.

-- 艾鹭 (Aì Lù)

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