Hot Pot: The meal of China's consumer class
Hot pot - especially the Chongqing variety - has produced dozens of restaurant chains throughout the country that make up an industry worth billions. In hot pot's home base of Chongqing, diners relax at a restaurant with a Cultural Revolution theme.
If you blindfolded yourself and walked through downtown Chongqing, you'd likely be hit by a car. If you weren't hit by a car, you'd hit a hot pot restaurant. It seems every other storefront here is packed with groups of friends dipping various animal parts into vats of oil filled with floating chili peppers.
It can take hours to eat hot pot -- you share it with friends, usually with the assistance of alcohol. It's become the meal of China's middle class and an industry worth billions.
"Running hot pot restaurants is cheap and easy," says Yan Qi, a successful Chongqing entrepreneur who owns a national chain of Chongqing-style restaurants named Taoranju.
She says hot pot requires nearly zero food preparation – the customers do the work – so it's the perfect money-making enterprise.
"Anyone can open a hot pot restaurant," says Yan. "All you have to do is supply the ingredients. The success rate is 100 percent."
That's meant hundreds of hot pot restaurant chains – many from Chongqing – battling it out for customers throughout China. But Yan's hatching a plan to dominate them all. She and 36 other female entrepreneurs in Chongqing have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a Chongqing cuisine theme park and a national hot pot restaurant chain.
They've got connections to pull it off. Yan's business card - twice the size of a normal card - overflows with 16 different job titles (including Chongqing National People's Congress representative and special inspector for both the Chongqing police and fire department), all of them proving her loyalty to China's Communist Party. Her office, what looks to be a replica of a Qing dynasty emperor's quarters, features two framed headshots of herself, facing each other.
It's the perfect place for a diabolical hot pot takeover.
"With my experience unifying businesses, I think Chongqing hot pot can spread across the world – like McDonald's or KFC," says Yan, sitting at her ornately carved desk. "Only when hot pot is streamlined like a factory will it realize its full potential."
Just outside of town, fellow hot pot tycoon Nie Ganru scoffs at these plans. "They're not going to be able to pull this off. No way," says Nie, shaking his head.
Nie had his own visions of hot pot grandeur. He's standing in the shadow of one of them: a 12-story steel and glass hot pot visible for miles, which he built a decade ago –the world's first hot pot museum. When I arrive, he fumbles for the museum's keys. I'm the only visitor.
Curious villagers begin to congregate outside to stare at the foreign journalist. Nie shoos them away – he doesn't want them tinkering with his hot pot artifacts. Plus, they haven't bought tickets.
"Hot pot is the greatest asset of Chongqing. It's the shining legacy of our city," declares Nie, standing in front of shelves of centuries-old cauldrons. "We need to repay hot pot by spreading its culture."
And that's one thing everyone here in this culinary capital seems to agree on.