Chinese hot pot is on the rise to become the go-to dining choice for wintry weather. But though the genre is often referred to as one unified cuisine by many Western audiences, there are differences — and the race for the best one has been going on for decades, if not centuries, across Chinese communities. New York City, thanks to its increasingly diversified Chinese food scene, is also witnessing a full-blown rivalry.
There is Chinese Mongolian hot pot from Northern China, which often comes with clear soup and focuses on delicate, thin-sliced lamb and beef; from the south, there is Cantonese and Macanese hot pot that features a wide collection of seafood. The real competition, though, occurs between two kinds of spicy hot pot originated from two Southwestern cities just 200 miles away: Chongqing and Chengdu. And in New York, Chongqing hot pot, boasting its spicy tallow-based broth and Sichuan pepper, is pulling ahead in the city’s already saturated hot pot scene.
Although both hot and spicy, Chongqing-style hot pot also uses a large amount of spicy tallow in the broth, giving the cooked materials a more intense, rich flavor. This use of beef fat might be partially due to the city’s history as a transportation hub at the upstream of the Yangtze River. In the early 20s, cows and oxen were butchered at the dock before shipping, and nearby restaurants served hot pot to cook cheap organ meat to roustabouts — beef tripe is the most popular choice till today. Beef fat, a low-cost yet tasty side product from all the butchering, naturally became an important ingredient to the dish.
Some Chongqing hot pot also sports a signature design: There’s a metal grid in the middle, separating the pot into nine chambers, nicknamed “Nine-Chamber Hot Pot (九宫格火锅).” The chambers are interconnected at the bottom, but they are quite helpful to organize hot pot food in a neat and Marie Kondo way. The central chamber has the highest temperature, which is better suited for tender meat like beef tripes and thin-sliced beef, while the surrounding chambers are relatively colder and used to slow cook meatballs and vegetables.
Chengdu hot pot, on the other hand, prefers vegetable oil and relies on special dipping sauces such as sesame oil, xiaomi pepper, or most distinctively, the peppery and pungent herb zhe’ergen, to give the food a more complex taste. It’s a lasting and divisive fight, akin to the battle between pizza in New York versus Chicago. There’s even a phrase for it: “川渝火锅之争” (the duel between Chengdu and Chongqing hot pot).
Right now, Chongqing hot pot’s popularity is pulling slightly ahead, especially among Chinese diaspora. Flushing’s Master Yin Chongqing Authentic Hot Pot, for instance, is one of the most featured restaurants by influencers on WeChat. It just opened a new branch in Long Island City. In 2019 alone, several other hot pot restaurants landed in the New York metropolitan area, with explicit branding of their Chongqing origins. Da Yu Hot Pot, a popular Chinese hot pot chain with its name directly referring to Chongqing’s Chinese abbreviation “Yu (渝)” opened its first New York franchise in Chinatown. Flushing’s Chongqing Lao Zao (translation: Old Stove in Chongqing) opened in January 2019, boasting a traditional, antique Chongqing rural decor. Similarly, famous Chinese franchises like Liu Yi Shou and Morals Village (De Zhuang) also expanded to Flushing and Somerset, New Jersey. Some, like Liu Yi Shou, set themselves apart by serving the tallow as figurines shaped like a cartoon cow, teddy bear, or Hello Kitty.
Chengdu hot pot saw some growth in New York, too. Xiang Hot Pot, hailed from Flushing with its signature Chengdu-style clear soup, opened its Brooklyn branch in 2019. Da Long Yi, another renowned Chengdu franchise, also landed in Manhattan Chinatown. But the popular Chengdu restaurant has been met with underwhelming reviews.
The nuanced differences between Chengdu and Chongqing-style hot pot are part of the longtime competition between two genres of Sichuan cuisine, although technically, Chongqing is no longer a city in Sichuan Province after 1997.
Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, is often seen as the “official” home of Sichuan cuisine — a genre with a rich history, royal tradition, and a wide range of spicy and non-spicy dishes. Though in New York, Sichuan food is best known for dishes like mapo tofu, the cuisine also has landmark dishes like a steamed cabbage dish in a clear chicken broth, which was once served in royal palaces.
Meanwhile, Chongqing cuisine is referred to as “Rivers and Lakes cuisine,” or jiang hu cai, with jiang hu meaning “society” in the context of the famed Chinese Wuxia Novels, a world where people fight with swords, and cai referring to the cuisine. It is the opposite of the “royal” connotations of Chengdu cuisine. Some say it lacks complexity compared to Chengdu food, but Chongqing cuisine makes up for it with more intense flavors.
The stronger flavor and less complexity propelled Chongqing food’s expansion across China and all over the world, both in hot pot and outside of it. Popular dishes like hot and spicy crawfish (麻辣小龙虾), Chongqing grilled whole fish (重庆烤鱼), fish in hot and spicy soup (水煮活鱼) are all part of this “Rivers and Lakes cuisine.” Non-Chongqing hot pot places — even many Sichuan restaurants — have incorporated spicy tallow broth on the menu. For instance, Haidilao, the popular international hot pot chain first started from Sichuan, includes both tallow-based broth and clear spicy soup. Xiang Hot Pot, the Sichuan hot pot place, also embraced Chongqing’s “Nine-Chamber Hot Pot” and spicy tallow broth, with a teddy bear-shaped tallow.
But there are still more newcomers rushing into the scene every year. Xiao Long Kan, another Chengdu import is to open a 5,000-square-foot location in Flushing, with the opening slated for summer 2020. With the Chinese food market still growing strong in New York, the duel is far from over.
When he’s not planning his next meal, Tony Lin makes videos and writes about food and the world around him.