An Audience with Chongqing’s Queen of Hot Pot
All photos by Elle Qu.


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An Audience with Chongqing’s Queen of Hot Pot

“There are a lot of people calling themselves ‘Hot Pot Goddess,’ but no one else calls themselves ‘Hot Pot Queen,’” says He Yongzhi, who founded a hot pot empire in 1982.

The arrival of the Queen of Hot Pot wasn't soundtracked by a royal fanfare, but a few loud snorts and a belch. He Yongzhi whirlwind-burst into the room wearing a huge Chinese national flag-red coat, matching lipstick, and gold lens-free spectacles.

As she plonked herself down onto her throne-like chair opposite me, a flunky timidly placed a bowl of noodles in front of her and she began slurping away as our allotted half hour began—no greeting.


Even if I hadn't been aware of the contents of He's CV, it would have been clear from her presence that she was a woman who made things happen. As the head of the Hot Pot Association of Chongqing, an enormous city in China's southwestern Sichuan province, she'd agreed to grant me a brief audience to educate MUNCHIES readers about the history of the spicy hot pot that characterises both the city's cuisine and her career.

All photos by Elle Qu.

He runs a hot pot restaurant chain named Little Swan that has hundreds of outlets—one is located in the Hongyadong building in which we met, that was said to have inspired the architecture in Spirited Away, the 2001 anime film by Japanese writer/director Hayao Miyazaki. It all adds up to her reportedly being one of China's wealthiest women, having cooked up a hot pot-soaked business empire from humble beginnings.

"There are a lot of people calling themselves 'Hot Pot Goddess,' but no one else calls themselves 'Hot Pot Queen,'" He said between noodle slurps. "I like the name—it was given to me by CCTV, the national television channel. People can call themselves whatever they want, but only the actual work and sweat counts."

The cooking style that He made her fortune with stretches back a long way in Chongqing. According to the staff at the Chongqing Hot Pot World Feast Museum, located under a hot pot restaurant run by the same company, named Tao Ran Jun, early hot pot-style cooking techniques in the area can be traced as far back as the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600-1046 BCE and 1046-256 BCE, respectively).


During the Tang and Song dynasties (618-907 AD and 960-1279 AD, respectively) fishermen used water from rivers in the area to cook tripe and duck intestines, laying the groundwork for more modern versions of hot pot. Now the cooking style sees ingredients cooked by diners just before they eat them, placing them in a bubbling pot of spicy oil in the centre of the dining table, or in individual cooking pots.

As the Queen tells it, in the first half of the 20th century hot pot was considered cuisine for the lower classes, members of which often used offal after the quality cuts were shipped off for the middle and upper classes. She says that it gained more popularity during the civil war years, around 1927 to 1950, when Chongqing officially became China's second city and more people flocked there.

"The weather was damp and people needed something strong to rid the dampness from their bodies," she said. "Two brothers with the surname Ma introduced hot pot to the wider public; back then they used a giant pot with nine slots and a coal-burning stove underneath. They constantly put sauce and ingredients into it, as if it would never stop. It was said that one hot pot would last for more than a decade."

According to He, from 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded, hot pot became less popular in the city as there was less desire for cuisine considered to be working class. In the 1980s, during China's reform and opening up, public perception of hot pot changed as the country did.


He, working in a factory at the time, added to the increasing amounts of Chongqing hot pot restaurants by quitting the factory and opening her own to capitalise on the perception shift. Little Swan was founded in 1982. One of the innovations that helped the brand rise to the top was having two sections to the pot—one spicy, one non-spicy—a style now seen in restaurants across China.

"Back then there were no bridges in Chongqing," she said. "One day I was on a ferry and noticed that the water seemed to be divided into two parts: the water from the Jialing River was yellowish and the water in the Yangtze was purer, transparent. It inspired me: Why didn't we have a pot divided into two parts? We were poor, and didn't want to throw away all our pots, so we just added a piece of metal in the middle so the sauces didn't mix."

He claimed that Chongqing came to be considered China's premier city for hot pot around the year 2000; since then, the city has hosted hot pot festivals and stunts, such as one that involved thousands of people eating hot pot at once. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and something of a rival city, is also known for its spicy hot pot, but He insists that her city is top of the pots. "Now Chongqing hot pot is renowned all over the world. It's become the name card of the city."

He's Hot Pot Association claims that there are around 50,000 hot pot restaurants in Chongqing. It sounds like a grand estimation, but the city does have an urban population of around 37 million. After my audience with the Queen, she packed me off with a copy of her autobiography, the brilliantly named Life Has to be More Wonderful, and I headed to the restaurant above the hot pot museum for a cooking demonstration.


Chef Chen Xiao Bin, who had been working with hot pot for around 30 years, filled a pot with vegetable oil, then fired up a spicy storm. The spine of hot pot is this oil-based mixture that the food is thrown into during mealtime.

A tantalising mix was stirred up. Enormous slabs of butter melted in the oil as Chen sporadically added ginger, Sichuan-sourced peppercorn called huajiao, garlic, and douban bean paste—a particularly important ingredient. He sloshed in a few swigs of baijiu—China's enormously popular and pungent liquor—that serves to kill unwanted tastes in the mix.

As Chen stirred his ladle, he explained that even though hot pot isn't deemed working class cuisine anymore, the most popular ingredients to cook in it still include beef stomach and duck intestines: throwbacks to the early riverside cook-ups. Blood cubes are also popular hot pot items and, as refrigeration techniques improved with China's post-Cultural Revolution opening up, seafood has been popularised as a hot pot staple.

"I was born in 60s…. the options for stuff to dip into hot pot were really limited," Chen said. "Only basic meat slices, liver, and things like onion. There was no sense of decoration for hot pot restaurants and we used coal to heat it up, which produced a lot of smoke. Nowadays gas and electric cookers make it so much cleaner and people are able to eat whatever they want in it, such as seafood."

We headed into the main restaurant area and got stuck in. The duck intestine and beef stomach was a bit tough for my slightly namby pamby British palate, but was given a pleasingly numbing twang of taste through the bubbling hot pot soup. The restaurant was a bit touristy, so the soup wasn't as spicy as I would have liked (the tongue-busting qualities of more local Chongqing hot pot places are legendary), but it was still a quality cook-up.

I'm very much looking forward to trying out the other 49,999 hot pot places in the city.