Saved by strangers at Chongqing hotpot

The bright lights and red façade attracted us to the first-floor hotpot restaurant not far from Chongqing’s Liberation Monument.

The steady stream of customers in and out of the place drew us closer to take a look.

The two Santa Claus cardboard cutouts on the restaurant’s door make it a lock for our choice for dinner.

And away we went, into the rabbit hole of our first gastronomic experience in China. Clueless in Chongqing – that was us.

We sat at the last open table, the only two white faces among a sea of jabbering, chopstick-wielding Chinese working up a sweat over spicy hotpots, mountainous bowls of rice and cold bottles of beer. The waitress arrived and plunked a menu/order page on a clipboard in front of us.

I'll have the.....

I’ll have the…..

The mass of Chinese characters might as easily have been Pythagoras’ theorem or a Greek recipe for Moussaka. We looked at the page, glanced around us at the steaming bowls of gawd knows what on nearby tables, and then back at each other.

Now what?

The two lost foreigners quickly attracted the amused stares of other diners. Chopsticks pointed our way. Some snickers could be heard.

A thickly-set guy at the table next to us, prompted by one of his three mates, rose and joined us. In halting English, he helped us navigate the choppy waters of the unnamed restaurant’s choices for dinner.

“We don’t eat meat,” Gabi offered, helpfully, and the guy’s head snapped up in amazement.

“Chicken?” she suggested.

“No chicken,” he said.

“Vegetables?” was my brilliant idea.

Thursday night crowd at Chongqing hotpot.

Thursday night crowd at Chongqing hotpot.

“No vegetables. Beef.”

We circled back.

“Noodles?” Gabi advised, and the guy said “no noodles” but one of his mates corrected him, and he wrote a “1” next to something we supposed might be noodles.

“Fish?” Yup. Check

“Tofu?” Sure. Check.

“OK,” I said. “That’s good.”

Not so fast.

“Duck blood?” he asked with a big smile.

Gabi turned white. I said “Sure!” and she shot me a glance as if to say if I ordered the duck dish its blood wouldn’t be the only hemoglobin in the bowl. Always up for a challenge, I persisted: “Sure.”

Sewing machine at the entrance. Santa cutouts on the door. Let's go!

Sewing machine at the entrance. Santa cutouts on the door. Let’s go!

The guy finished our order, adding two beers to the bottom, and retreated to his table. One of his mates passed along a smartphone with a translation application. Next to some Chinese scrawl was the operative word of the meal: “Spicy.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said, smiling.

A few minutes later we had prepaid the 690 yuan (about $11) and were tucking into four steaming bowls of glass noodles with mushrooms, fish stew with glass noodles, a tofu dish with a clear broth, enoki mushrooms and glass noodles, and a delicious tofu dish loaded with spicy chilis.

And bathed in duck blood.

But don’t tell Gabi. She’s convinced that the red coloring was from the chilis. On our walk back to the hotel she assured me that if I insisted on discussing the likely contents of the dish it could well wind  up on the sidewalk.

Like all the other dishes, whatever it was, it was delicious.

Happy guy surrounded by spicy food. That's the duck blood tofu in foreground.

Happy guy surrounded by spicy food. That’s the duck blood tofu in foreground.