Lessons in China

The restaurant seemed to be staffed entirely with 18 year olds, but how often do you get to eat at “Let Your Mouth Dance”? We went in.

The impressively earnest hostess showed us to a table, and when we admitted this was our first hot pot in China, she congratulated us on finding her restaurant. “We have the best broth. Would you like to try some?” She gave us two small cups, which we sipped and agreed was delicious. I hadn’t thought of the broth as something you drink, but admittedly my experience was based on shabu-shabu in California, which was both Japanese and 6,460 miles away.

The world’s endless capacity to teach things both momentous and trivial is a huge part of why I love travel, despite how awkward the process can be. Like my first trip to Europe, baffled at how to buy a train ticket from the airport to Frankfurt’s city center. Or the night my first dinner of dal bhat hit the table in Nepal and I sat waiting for silverware. When my Nicaraguan couch-surfing host laughed at my question and answered a different one instead, “You don’t have to use the formal tense with me, man. Save that for your girlfriend’s mother!”

The initial dose of embarrassment may feel heavy, but an instant later you do the thing properly for the 100th time and smile back at the memory of learning it. The arc from initial goof to later facility is a pleasant one.

Unless it begins with agony.

“Would you like spicy broth, or half-half?” our gentle younger sister asked us. Hot pot is supposed to be hot, right? So we asked for spicy, on that Xi’an afternoon. We oohed at the opulent color of the dragon red broth when it arrived. Seeing it swirl was like looking at canisters of pepper spray on the shelf, an intrinsic understanding of pepper potential.

We went to the wall of refrigerators and loaded up our trays with semi-recognized skewers of stuff, which we lowered into the bubbling brew. My first morsel was a cluster of thin mushroom stalks, their tiny lego cups soon filled with red soup. It tasted like cold fire. Each item after that added to the cold and the burn, which shifted past pepper toward minty, if mint was grown by the devil. It was like brushing my teeth with spearmint and lit sterno.

My eyes were already watering, but I wanted to move my relationship with Chinese hot pot to the next level. Why else would they give us spoons? Bring on the broth.

It was like making out with Mephistopheles. Flavor no longer existed, only ascending intensities of burning, overachieving and obstinate. L was looking at me with wide eyes. “I wish you could see yourself right now,” she said. “You’re an incredible color. You look like a fire hydrant!” She was turning pretty red herself, as laughter overflowed from some place deep (and deeply entertained) within her. But I was flummoxed. This was too much. Too hot. Not a viable option for sustenance. I thought it might kill me, and I was being cremated pre-mortem. I had clearly made a serious mistake.

Yeah. You don’t drink the broth in Chinese hot pot either. Not the spicy stuff, anyway.

From Xi’an we moved down into and through Szechuan Province proper, and ate hot pot again and again. Sometimes by accident. (“No menu, but I don’t see hot pot on the tables. I need a break, let’s eat here.” Then they’d take us to a table with the hot pot burner in the center.) During each lingual scorching we’d swear to skip the spicy next time, yet whenever it was time to order, not-spicy just didn’t seem right. Every pot was an incident of flame, an ongoing baptism of lava, but the culinary firewalk got more enjoyable every time.

I learned to welcome the burn and accept it, savoring the cold heat, knowing how long it would endure, and learned to temper it with a blend of sauces, garlic, and herbs in a side dish. An instant-and-week later, mouth burning just right with Szechuan experience, I smiled back at that first agonizing mistake. And smiled.