And, almost immediately regretted it.
We love spicy food. Anytime we have the opportunity to try something new and spicy, we go for it, and we usually request that the food be as spicy as possible.
Of course, a few times we asked for just a bit too much. One time in Cambodia, for instance, we went to an Indian restaurant (we know…Indian food in Cambodia), and asked the waiter to make it extra spicy. He ended up having to cook us a new dish due to Max’s tears, but that’s a story for another day.
Over the years, though, our spicy tolerance has certainly built up. After years living in South Korea and Mexico, that’ll happen to you.
So, needless to say, when we tried hot pot for the first time in Guangzhou, China we thought we were prepared.
Boy, were we mistaken.
Let me backtrack a little. Max and I were on our way to New Delhi, India, and we had a layover in Guangzhou—a city that sits on the Pearl River in southern China—on our leg from Los Angeles. We planned this purposely—all the flights available for China Southern had this layover on this route, and we booked the one with the 13-hour stopover so that we could get out and see another Chinese city. We had only ever been to Beijing.
China has this great 72-hour visa program in most of its cities that allows you to leave the airport on a stopover or transfer. Additionally, China Southern provided a free transit hotel accommodation, transfer to and from the airport, as well as a tour if we were interested.
We also got free vouchers for a meal at the hotel when we arrived. But, we respectfully declined. We only had one food we wanted to eat during out 13-hour layover (10, if you subtract the three hours it took waiting for a visa at the airport).
Now, we’ve had some versions of hot pot before. In South Korea, we often ate Shabu Shabu and would choose the spiciest broth (when we weren’t with friends). And, since we weren’t in Chongqing which is where the dish supposedly originated, I thought, again, that we’d be champs at this.
After throwing our bags on the floor of our hotel room, taking a quick shower (had to get the plane off me), and stretching my eyelids out in the mirror with my thumb and forefinger to make sure I was still awake/alive inside, we set out to find our hot pot.
But, it was morning in Guangzhou, and thus not a popular time for the locals to chow down on a meal like this. We’d have to kill some time beforehand.
So, we took the subway (very efficient) to the downtown area. There were plenty of shops open, and we stopped to get a bubble tea, which is one of our favorite past times on a hot day in Asia. Guangzhou was very hot that day, but as it was October, it wasn’t too bad.
After slurping down the bubble tea (we ordered another), we made our way around the downtown area, popping into shops here and there to take a look. We pushed off the hunger, as we wanted to be very hungry when it came time to eat the hot pot. We waited for the clock (on our phones) to strike 12 noon, which is when the “hot pot restaurants open now” search on our Maps would reveal plenty of options.
Finally, we saw that several options were open around us. We didn’t know, of course, which restaurant to choose, so we just went for one that was close, open, had good reviews, and was relatively cheap.
We arrived at the restaurant, and it was empty, except for one man getting the restaurant together by taking down chairs and stocking the refrigerator, and another at the register wearing a chef’s hat.
“Umm, are you open?” we gestured lamely with our faces and hands opened wide to indicate the word “open”. We hadn’t mastered Cantonese.
“Yes. Open!” nodded the cheery man at the register. He extended his arm to indicate we were free to walk in.
We expected someone to seat us at a table, but it was clear that this was not how things were done, a reminder that just because you’ve eaten a similar dish on the same continent, doesn’t mean the experience was going to be the same.
Somehow, we figured out that we had to head to the refrigerators where the other worker was stocking food. We saw price tags on the foods, and realized that due to the proximity of the food to the registers, we’d pick out our ingredients for the hot pot, pay for it, and take it to our table.
We had no time at all to do the currency exchange automatically in our heads, so we took out our phones to understand what things would cost. We settled for some noodles, some meat (not sure of which animal), some mushrooms, some onions, and some greens (not sure of which plant).
Hesitating, we walked with our choices to the register, and the man rang them up and placed them in a basket. Then, he gestured in the other direction, indicating that we could now take a seat with our ingredients.
A waiter came out to our table, smiled, and pointed at the menu next to us. We were confused—surely the hot pot would just be brought out now? There was a hole in the center of the table for it, but how to get it? I wish I could have been able to magically conjure up it up, just like the courage I’d need to eat this meal.
We pointed at the hole in the table, and fanned a hand in front of our mouths with our tongue hanging out followed by a thumbs up to indicate we wanted the spiciest one available. The waiter grinned, probably thinking, “These guys have absolutely no idea what they’re about to get themselves into.”
Max and I grinned excitedly at each other.
“We’re finally going to try hot pot! I’m so excited!” I said to Max.
“Can’t wait! My butt’s gonna burn tonight!” he joked, licking his lips.
We sat impatiently (but, trying to look patient and polite, even though we were the only ones in the restaurant) with our hands folded on the table.
Finally (actually, it didn’t take very long), the waiter brought over the steaming hot pot from the kitchen, and placed it in the hole in our table. We looked down, smoke fogging up my glasses, at what was inside. At the same time, my nose hairs were getting singed.
“Oh. My. God.”
The pot was red—flaming red—with flakes of chili and bubbling like lava spewing out of a volcano.
We gestured to the waiter, pointing to our food items that we purchased, and then pointing to the hot pot, essentially asking whether or not we should put it in.
He pointed to the noodles first, holding up his forefinger indicating “first”. Then, he pointed to the vegetables, holding up his forefinger and middle finger. “Second”. Then he pointed to the meat and held up three fingers. “Third.”
We nodded our heads happy that we understood him.
Max leaned over the hot pot to rip open the plastic packaging on the noodles, but had to pause to sneeze.
The chilies from the broth were getting to him already!
“Are you sure you can handle this?” I asked.
“Duh”, he replied.
We dumped the noodles in and several minutes later, the veggies, then the meat, which you can do little by little (a skill we learned from our Shabu Shabu days).
When we felt it was ready (as we eyed the waiter for approval), we stuck the metal ladle in and poured it in each of our bowls. Around the corner from our booth was a community table with water, napkins, and some other little condiments to add to your dish, many of which I didn’t recognize. I noticed that they were short on napkins, and it’s worth noting that the napkins in Asia are not soft like those in the United States, but rough and just absorb oil like makeup remover.
We looked at each other as if it was the last time, gave each other a salute, and dug in.
We immediately regretted it. We had never tasted anything so spicy in our lives.
“FUCKKKK” we both garbled, broth spilling out of our mouths with tears beginning to form in our eyes, careful not to touch them with our fingers.
I chugged my glass of water as did Max, and it didn’t help. I ran up to the counter to get more water, and more water, and more water.
“We gotta keep going”, I said to Max, as soon as I finally got reprieve.
The process kept repeating itself, with each spoonful making our mouths hotter and hotter. We could barely swallow anything. The mucus started to form in our noses, and we must have went through an entire forest of those napkins to contain the snot dribbling out like a waterfall.
We spent the rest of the ordeal laughing, crying, spitting, and mourning the loss of our intestinal tracks and bathroom dignity that would befall us over the next several days.
In the end, we didn’t get to finish even a 1/3 of the meal. It was just too damn hot. As we walked out of the restaurant limping, we saw locals eating the same dish at their tables, and they weren’t even flinching. How?
For weeks after, Max and I said that the hot pot was probably hot enough to kill any bad cells that could have been in our body.
Would we try it again?
Here’s the restaurant we ate at:
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