What’s the best way to warm up on a cold Canberra night? A steaming hot pot. The most authentic spicy Sichuan hot pot in Canberra is at Red Chilli Sichuan Restaurant.
A while ago I was at a function at the Chinese Embassy, and, as is often the case being a foodie, the topic turned to food. “Where do you go out for authentic Chinese,” I asked the charming Chinese diplomat I was talking to. “Well, there a few fine dining places we go to when we entertain. But when it is just us, with our friends, the most authentic place is Red Chilli Sichuan Restaurant.”
My Sichuanese friend at work agrees. Sichuan food is notoriously hot and spicy – not the hottest food in China (that honour goes to the food of Hunan province, the birthplace of Mao Zedong). But Sichuan is pretty close on the chilli scale.
I have fond memories of backpacking through Sichuan. I remember watching in amazement as young children shovelled on spoonfuls of chilli sauce at breakfast. I loved watching the beautiful young Sichuan women in their colourful dresses, who appeared flirty and spirited living up to their reputation as being as passionate and fiery as their cuisine. I often paused to inhale the chilli fragrance wafting from the many hot pot restaurants.
Sichuan is not the home of hot pot, but it has reinvented the spicy hot pot like nowhere else. It is a warming dish best enjoyed in winter. If you are planning to visit Red Chilli, make sure you book in advance. Red Chilli only has three purpose built hot pot tables. One is near the entrance and gets a bit draughty as people enter and exit.
We ordered half non-spicy with tomato and Chinese dates (qing tang) and half extra spicy (te la). This yin-yang style soup pot allowed us to dare up to the spiciness of the chilli hot pot and chicken out if it got too hot. Yes, it was too hot, and at one point I nearly choked in a coughing fit caused by too much chilli. The extra spicy pot was so chocka bloc with chilli, garlic and Sichuan chilli pepper (prickly ash) that it was difficult to find the food in amongst the chilli. I reeked of chilli and garlic for days afterwards and felt subconscious in one on one conversations.
But what fun! Eating this spicy hot pot is a unique social experience best enjoyed with a group of friends on a cold winter’s night. Or on a date, like I did, where there was no awkwardness because we were too busy laughing over the extreme heat of the hot pot and the resulting messiness as we boiled our ingredients in the inferno. The spicy hot pot was also the perfect accompaniment to a glass (or two) of Eden Valley Riesling, with the chilled wine soothing our encounters with the infamous Sichuan prickly ash chilli (which numbs the tongue and leaves a soapy aftertaste).
The way the hot pot ordering system works is that you order the soup and select a variety of meat and vegetables to add to it. We over-ordered which is easy to do – beef slices, cabbage, vermicelli noodles, fish balls filled with roe, dried tofu skin, prawns, enoki mushrooms and coriander. We also ordered some garlic oil as a dipping sauce. The wait staff brought out the dishes and stacked them on plastic shelves at the end of the table, then left us to dunk in the bubbling lava pit on the table. Our total spend for the night was $98 (including wine), although we offset that with a voucher from the Entertainment Book which offered up to $35 off.
Service was slow but well-meaning. Most of the staff were young students from China. They seemed blind to anticipating what we might require but were polite and helpful when we got their attention. We must have done something to impress them because they served us huge balloon glasses of Riesling (did I mention it was a happy evening?)
We spilt out onto the street after a riotous night into a dark and cold Canberra winter night, my belly still full of chilli soup, meat and vegetables, and giggles from the wine. Happy days.