At night, a young Chinese couple enters the JiudingyuanSichuan Hotpot Restaurant in Jyatha, Thamel, and asks everyone, “Who would like to join us for hotpot? Only the two of us cannot eat so much.” Zhang Chao turned around and replied, “I will join you guys.” As they sat down, a middle-aged Chinese man got close to the couple and started a conversation. “Oh, you are also from this city?” said the young couple. “Yes! It is so lucky to meet you here.” After talking for a while, they started eating, with endless steam emanating from the pot.
Zhang Chao was asked,“Is this the real original Sichuan hotpot?” He replied, “Desks,chairs,chef,spices,and food in this restaurant are all from China,except these seven Nepali waiters. What do you think? Even those Nepali waiters can speak a little bit of the Sichuan language.” “What if it is fake?” asked the customers. “Then you don’t need to pay for it,” Zhang Chao answered.
Zhang Chao has received such questions a lot since he opened the restaurant, Jiudingyuan Sichuan Hotpot Restaurant,in Thamelin June 2018. As a Sichuan man who grew up with hotpot culture, he brought the original Sichuan hotpot culture to Nepal, and now his restaurant is one of few Sichuan hotpot restaurants in Kathmandu. Sichuan hotpot, one of the shining stars in Chinese food culture, which dates back to about 200 years, is unique for its taste: spicy and fresh.To achieve this taste, it is based on three main elements—hotpot soup,seasoning, and the food.
Soup,Seasoning, and Food
Usually, customers come to have hotpot at night. Zhang starts to get busy at 5p.m., and is the busiest from 6p.m. to 9p.m. He welcomes customers warmly, and helps them order the hotpot soup first. There are several options for soups. Where the customer is from is the key to decide the soup. For Sichuan people, original Sichuan spicy hotpot is recommended, while for Cantonese people from southern part of China, and European customers, soup pot is better, included in which are some Chinese herbingredients likeAngelica sinensis,dangshen, medlar,etc.If people from different areas eat together, double-flavor hotpot is the choice.The degree of spiciness is also adapted based on this. The spiciness would be a little bit more for Mandarin people, while Sichuan people would be provided the normal spiciness. He jokes that, sometimes, Sichuan people do not tell him their hometown, but their accent betrays them.
“Especially for making seasoning, what I make is real original seasoning from Sichuan hotpot. I had been having hotpot since I was a kid, and my favorite food is also hotpot,”said Zhang.He cares about the seasoning a lot, and often help customers make seasoning if they are not familiar with hotpot. Waiters are also taught how to make it.Usually, the seasoning he makes include sesame oil, sesame, peanut granule, oyster sauce, coriander, scallions, garlic,and Lao Gan Ma oil. Besides these options, there are also flower pepper oil, sesame paste,home-made pepper,Lao Gan Ma chili sauce,chili powder, and so on.More options will be provided in the future, such as fermented bean curd and beef paste.
Seasoning gives the food unique interpretation and personal taste.In the beginning, he wondered why there were not many customers in his restaurant, since the food materials were of good quality and everything was fine. He gradually understood that,besides Sichuan people, the number of people from northeast part of China staying in Nepal is also high. Therefore, he should satisfy customers’ tastes from different regions.The seasoning he made may not be suitable for customers from the northern part of China. Sichuan customers use sesame oil, while northeast people prefer sesame paste.
Once, two European tourists came to his restaurant accidentally, and tried hotpot. They had no idea how to make seasoning, so just imitated what other Chinese customers did, but the effect was not so good. “I just observed what they did on purpose, and then helped them make one. They kind of blamed mefor not helping them at the beginning,”he joked.
Talking about its origin, Sichuan hotpot was born in a wharf called Xiaomitan,which is located beside Yangtze River in Luzhou,Sichuan Province. Boatmen started to cook after arriving, and they usually had only a pot with water. Theyboiled various vegetableswith pepper and flower pepper. It was believed that vegetables should be 30% of the main meal, and that flower pepper could help ward off cold. After the cooking method spread to Chongqing Province, some workers picked up some viscera from the cattle farm and cut them into pieces to boil in the pot. The variety of food expanded to hundreds of items gradually, including vegetables, viscera, meats, etc.
The food ingredients in Zhang Chao’s restaurant are imported from China. But, sometimes the road in the border is blocked because of landslides, leading to shortages. In such a case, he tries to find some replaceable food material in the local market. Among all the foods in the hotpot, yachang(duck intestine) and maodu(beef stomach) are the most popular. Sometimes,if the customer wants to eat something special, Zhang Chao can prepare it in advance.
“For me, the real soul of hotpot dates back to my childhood, when I bought chicken claws from the store and rolled it in pepper powder. It was super spicy, but you just wanted more. ” Maybe that is the charm of pepper. The spicier it is, the more you want to eat. And,about the hotpot, the more you eat, the more you feel hungry,” he said.
“You should have hotpot with a group, and eat the spicy food till you can’t stand it and have to run to drink water, and your clothes are covered with the smell of hotpot after leaving the restaurant,” said Zhang Chao. Having hotpot together with family or friends is a very happy occasion. Unlike other Chinese cuisine, hotpot needs a long time to finish, so it is the time to talk with people sitting next to you, with steam filling the air.
However, not all the people can be so lucky to have hotpot with their friends all the time, but that doesn’t change the spirit of eating together. “Once, some Chinese were sitting in the restaurant and heard someone speaking their hometown language at the next table. They just turned around and started to talk. After several days, I don’t know what happened, but they were sitting together to have hotpot in my restaurant,” said Zhang Chao. This kind of encounter happens quite often. Like, a Chinese tourist met one guy from his hometown in the street, and then they had hotpot together three times. For the Chinese, here is where they find themselves belonging and fulfilling their craving for food of their motherland.
Not only Chinese people, but Nepali people also like having hotpot together. Zhang Chao shared a story: once there were two Nepali men who ordered two dishes in his restaurant. From his perspective, he could not earn money from that table. But, later, they called some friends to join them, saying that the taste was really delicious. And still later, more friends joined their meal. Finally, there were 30 Nepali men having hotpot together!
Gathering together, sharing food, and enjoying the meal express the meaning of containment of Sichuan hotpot culture, which also represents one of the important characteristics in Chinese culture.“Next time you want to have hotpot, just send a message in Wechat, then we can do it.”
About Zhang Chao
It was Zhang Chao’s dream of establishing a restaurant when he was a child. At that time, his family was poor.He told his mother that he wanted to eat meat,but his mother told him to climb and bite the tree instead. Then, he swore to open a restaurant in the future so that he could eat whatever he wanted.
He served in the army initially, working in the kitchen. After retiring, he wanted to be a chef and learned from his uncle, a famous chef in Xinjiang Province,but he found that if he did it, he might just be a chef for his whole life.Instead, what he wanted was to learn management,so he chose to work in the kitchen of a Sichuan hotpot restaurant,learning how to manage the kitchen, choose, and match food materials for a few years.Then, he worked as anofficer, as per his parents’ wish.
However,thelife of an officer was too boring for him. He got the chance to change when he traveled to Nepal for his honeymoon with his wife one year ago,discovering that there were not many Sichuan hotpot restaurants in Nepal,especially when walking along the west from Pokhara. Thus, he discussed with his wife to quit the job and opened the hotpot restaurant in Thamel,Kathmandu. He also learned from an expert who runs a seasoning factory to know how to match the seasoning. “Hotpot used to be purely spicy. Now, people prefer healthy lifestyle. If the seasoning is adapted, it can also work. Kids can also drink the pot soup,”Zhang Chao said.
For the future, he plans to continue operating the Jiudingyuan Hotpot Restaurant till it becomes the best one in Kathmandu. Then, he also wants to import some other snacks from Sichuan food culture toThamel,like lengzhanzhan, a fast food that is eaten after putting sauce on it. “That would be better, because some tourists just spend a few days visiting Kathmandu.They don’t need to waste a few hours in my restaurant to have hotpot,”says Zhang Chao.