Everyone that knows me, knows of my outstanding affair with spicy food. It started with adding just that extra spoon of 辣椒 (LàJiāo – hot pepper) to every bowl of noodles that I came across to, to buying my own Mexican habanero sauces – ready to be used on every occasion. When I am faced with Sichuanese food (川菜 – ChuānCài), I must admit though, I do hesitate for a moment, for the wrong choice has left me red-eyed, defeated and in
slight, moderate, quite noticeable pain.
For those of you who don’t want to repeat the mistake(s) I did, what you need to know before ordering Sichuanese food is that they tend to ‘season’ their dishes according to the tree degrees of spiciness:
微辣 (Wēi Là) slightly spicy
中辣 (Zhōng Là) medium spicy
重辣 (Zhòng Là) very (heavy) spicy
Now, for all of you careful readers out there, you will observe only the slight difference between categories two and three. But, let me tell you, the smallish difference between the first and the forth tone has never been so deadly.
During the hot summer months – although Shanghai has yet to show its worse this year – I often seek refuge in light, vegetable dishes, with a generous portion of chillies on top. This led me to discover one of, in my opinion, Sichuan’s best concoctions: 麻辣香锅 (MáLà Xiāng Guò)- ‘peppery and spicy fragrant pot’. And that it is.
The layout of the store will remind you of the similar, yet quintessentially different, 麻辣烫 (MáLà Tāng – peppery and spicy soup). First step, you will have to choose among the vegetables, mushrooms, meat and sea food displayed, all raw, of course. Only beginner Chinese is required here, since for most of the time, mere pointing here and there will do. In my experience, the spicy pot is best shared among a group of friends. One ‘pot’ is actually rather big and that way you will also get to try out different things – although, to this day, I still don’t dare to reach for meat and seafood (perhaps it’s the general lack of refrigeration that sounds the alarm bell).
After you are satisfied with the mountain of vegetables now gathered before you, this will now be weighted, with the appropriate price presented to you. And now comes your time to shine: if you are of a more adventurous kind, be careful what you say – the line between comfortable spicy and insane is fine, oh so fine, here, and no matter what, don’t be too cocky and go for (my usual line): 请多放点儿辣椒 (Qǐng Duō Fàng Diǎnr LàJiāo – please add more hot peppers) – happened to me before (first time, last time and never again).
And if you are not equipped to understand and answer that question in Chinese, don’t worry – upon seeing your foreign face they will take pity on you and automatically go for the non-spicy/slightly spicy variation – but, come next time, you will have no more excuses, be brave and don’t look back!