SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Hot pot queen

Spice of success: He Yongzhi.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Pallavi Aiyar

PALLAVI AIYAR

Hot pot is Chongqing’s signature cuisine. And nobody makes it better than He Yongzhi.

Perched on a bluff above the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialiang rivers, the southwestern city of Chongqing is famed around China for its blisteringly hot summers. But it’s not only the humidity and hilly terrain that have locals and tourists alike perspiring the long sultry evenings away.

What really gets the sweat glands working is the city’s signature cuisine, available everywhere from rough and ready street stalls to rarefied dining rooms: hot pot.

Elaborate event

In Chongqing, hot pot or huoguo is more of an event than a meal. It involves dunking an array of raw foods from duck tripe to potatoes into a vat of boiling, bubbling broth placed and lit at the centre of the table. In addition to the food, a hot pot outing usually includes the quaffing of copious quantities of baijiu — a lethal, grain-based Chinese liquor — a liberal smattering of spicy oil on the diner’s clothes and the ingestion of a range of mystery meats.

What’s unique about Chongqing-style hot pot is the intensity of the broth, saturated as it is with scalding chillies and numbing Sichuan-peppercorns.

It is fitting therefore that the city’s hot pot queen, 54-year-old He Yongzhi, has a temperament as saucy and spicy as any of her famed huoguo recipes.

In a quarter of a century, He has gone from laid-off worker to head honcho of a global hot pot franchise empire numbering 318 outlets, including four in the United States and one in Sydney, Australia.

“I am the queen of hot pot,” she says briskly, running a diamond-laden finger over her perfectly coiffured hair. “I have achieved it through a combination of courage, hard work, and cleverness.”

He is sitting in her multi-million dollar, villa-style home set by an artificial lake, classically framed by a clutch of weeping willows. Diaphanous chandeliers swing from the ornate ceilings. A glassy-eyed, stuffed lion looks on menacingly from alongside a large leather lounger.

At the top

With a personal fortune of 900 million Yuan ($117 million), He is one of China’s wealthiest women and she is obviously unafraid to flaunt it. Unsurprising perhaps; reticence would only have hindered the hot pot mogul’s rags to restaurants journey.

He recalls how she began her career in the 1970s as a worker in a State-owned enterprise (SOE), making children’s shoes. When she lost her job in 1982, He decided to take advantage of new regulations, revolutionary at the time, that allowed those unable to find a job in an SOE or laid off from one, to start up a small private business.

She thus sold her family home and with the 3,000 Yuan ($390) from the sale, opened up her first hot pot restaurant. “It was all of 16 square meters and had a total of three tables,” He recalls, chuckling at the memory.

Given that she is revisiting her humble past from the plush interiors of a 7,00,000 Yuan ($91,000) Jaguar on the way to Hong Yadong, the hip shopping arcade cum restaurant complex she is the owner of, He might well chuckle.

Over the years, He’s “Cygnet” restaurants have been responsible for almost single handedly putting Chongqing on China’s gastronomic map. As a result, a night out sampling hot pot’s fiery wonders is probably the city’s number one tourist draw.

Innovation pays

“I am an innovator,” He continues with characteristic bluntness. This is no empty boast, for, He can in fact lay claim to one of hot pot’s most successful innovations, the “yuan yang” hot pot, a type of huoguo that is separated into two sections, with one half white and not-so-spicy, and the other half wickedly red and packed with chillies.

“It’s because of ‘yuan yang’ that Chongqing hot pot has the kind of status it does now,” He claims. “It’s enabled what is after all an extremely simple kind of food to carve a position in the national marketplace, even in places where people don’t like too much chilli.”

The hot pot queen is, however, not content with having established a presence in every major Chinese city. “Beginning from the second half of this year, we want to start expanding abroad in a bigger way,” she says. The plan, she reveals, is to have restaurants in 15 major cities across the world within the next decade.

Once the Jaguar is safely stowed away in Hong Ya Dong’s parking lot, He takes her leave. “I am very busy you know,” she says, “Many people are waiting to see me.”

But before she departs He hustles us into a Cygnet hot pot restaurant, Hong Ya Dong’s star attraction, for a spot of lunch. Avoiding the cow’s throat, chicken’s stomach and various others innards takes some skilful ordering but the end result is lip-smackingly satisfactory.

Just before the end of the meal He reappears once again. “Did you like it?” she queries a tad anxiously and beams in satisfaction when the answer is affirmative. “You should eat hot pot more often,” she continues wagging her solitaire adorned digit, “It’s good for the health.”

Your correspondent’s stomach, which has begun a polite disagreement with the copious quantities of visiting chillies suddenly interrupting its day, may have disagreed with He on the health count, but her taste glands agree that a hot pot now and again would certainly spice up one’s life.