When you mention something that is spicy, it just shows one characteristic of Sichuan cuisine–“辣(là)”. Another word–“numbing” (麻(má)) is less referred to due to its unique stimulation of the taste buds. Like the mustard being used in Japanese dish, there’s a special seasoning called “花(huā)椒(jiāo)”(You can find the item of “Sichuan Pepper” in Wikipedia). You can directly feel the “numbing feeling” with your tongue and even your lip.
To properly bridge the cultural gap, I’d like to introduce you the Sichuan style sausages (called 川(chuān)式(shì)香(xiāng)肠(cháng) in Chinese) first. I heard from one foreign friend that he was not used to the sweet taste of Chinese sausages and I explained to him that the sweet version is originated from Guangdong; so called Cantonese sausages (广(guǎng)式(shì)香(xiāng)肠(cháng)) which boast large popularity around China. Sichuan style sausages are local people’s favorite food especially in southwest China, from the beginning most families in the countryside prepared the sausages in their own kitchens or used ovens in the open air; using the branch of pine or cypress trees as smoking material to add special aroma.
I had an experience to witness the whole making process during my childhood. They chose fresh pork and then made as minced meat, and then seasoned with salt, black pepper (胡(hú)椒(jiāo)) powder, a little bit sugar, and some wine as well as Hua Jiao powder which is quite essential to make the special “numbing” effect. After pickling for a few minutes, filled the meat in washed chitterlings and tied each ends with string. Packing the minced pork always required high skill so that the meat was neither too loosened nor too tight. What’s more, in order to make sure the sausages were “breathable” during smoking, people used to puncture the “sausage coat” with needle. After those full preparations, the sausage can be dealt with in two ways. One way is directly hanging the sausages in the open air where is ventilated and with a sunny exposure until the water inside the sausages evaporated. This kind of making method is widely called “风(fēng)肉(ròu)”, literally means “dry the meat with the natural wind” and not only limited to make sausages but other dried meat. Another way is using the traditional oven with burning spices mixed together as I mentioned above, so called “熏(xūn)肉(ròu)”（smoked meat）or “腊(là)肉(ròu)”(In traditional Chinese lunar calendar, December is commonly called “腊月”, and “腊肉” has an indication that it is usually prepared in December to embrace the Spring Festival). Personally I prefer “腊肉” more because it has adding more aroma during smoking compared with “风肉”.
During one service training the teacher talked about her experience to take her foreign customers to taste Ma La Huo Guo (麻辣火锅, Numbing and Spicy Hot Pot ) every time they visited Chongqing or Chengdu in southwestern China. The first time she felt quite uncertain about their feedbacks to try such kind of “stimulative” food style, surprisingly nearly all customers felt excited even though their tongue felt numbing and the “hot” taste made them sweating. Feel funny and strange? Hah, the reason is somehow the same story with some people prefer to choose bungee jumping to yell out. The taste of spicy and numbing exactly provides them a kind of feeling for releasing themselves. Instead of gaining a state of inner peace by drinking a cup of warm milk before sleep, Ma La Huo Guo totally removes any kind of low spirit by giving you a “strong stimulation”. Based on my personal experiences, almost every foreign friend I knew who had ever tried Huo Guo liked it. And I feel glad to offer those Chinese Huo Guo lovers some practical tips to “upgrade” your experiences.
1. If you want to taste genuine Ma La Huo Guo, it is best to have it in the “City of Hot Pot”—Chongqing(重庆). Moreover, don’t feel disappointed if you have a tight schedule in China without an opportunity to pay a visit there. With the development of domestic cuisine market and the wide spread of this Chongqing specialty, many famous restaurants open their chain stores to enlarge their business, especially in tourist cities. Take Ma La Huo Guo restaurants for example, you can still find some well-known Chongqing brand in Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, etc., which are mostly opened by real Chonqqing locals and perfectly preserved the local ingredients and cooking methods.
2. Huo Guo restaurants are easily found in most cities of China, but with diversified tastes. Basically, the “opposite” version of Ma La Huo Guo is called Qing Shui Huo Guo (清水火锅), literally means this kind of Huo Guo is made of soup without adding spicy ingredients. Usually there are several selections for you to choose the soup type with different prices such as pork bone soup, chicken soup, and fish soup as you wish. If you are just an average spicy lover or hesitate to eat too much spicy food, I highly recommended you to order an interesting and useful Huo Guo type called “鸳(yuān)鸯(yāng)锅(guō)”. “鸳鸯”literally means Mandarin duck, the Ba Gua symbol style pot is smartly divided into two parts so that you can enjoy totally different tastes in each part at the same time. Commonly I’d like to order Ma La Huo Guo and Qing Shui Huo Guo to form a “鸳鸯锅” when I’m eating out with friends so as to satisfy everyone’s eating habits.
3. No matter what type of Huo Guo you choose, the dipping sauce (蘸(zhàn)酱(jiàng)) in Huo Guo restaurant is another highlight. You can dip the boiled dish into the sauce you order such as peanut sauce, sesame sauce, seafood sauce to add more delicious flavor.
Talking about the “numbing” taste of Sichuan cuisine, “麻婆豆腐”(Ma Po Toufu) is widely known as a homemade dish. So, don’t miss this tasty but cheap dish when you try to taste Sichuan delicacy.