I just want to say something about hotpot. I hate hotpot.
There's something about its bubbling, murky depths, from whence anything could be waiting to pounce, that appalls me.
Don't get me wrong, I dislike soup, too. Anything you need a spoon to eat reminds me of hospitals, toothlessness and death. I find fish soup and chicken soup particularly disgusting, with their grey and slimy contents, like dishwater that's been left to fester for weeks. But hotpot? I actively hate it.
Once, in a village in Sichuan province, I was invited for a "special gourmet meal" by people who must have hated me - for not only was a huge, bubbling pot the only thing on the table, the things they'd stuck in it were exclusively the parts of animals that other people throw away. Out of a grey, seething morass stuck the heads of chickens, their eyes staring emptily. Black, meatless claws slowly rose out of the goo as if trying to pull me down and white innards gleamed menacingly in the turgid, malodorous darkness. I have never left a table more hollow-cheeked with hunger.
Hotpot cauldrons take up far too much space, making it impossible to play cards or see the person sitting opposite you. Also, the intensely hot steam makes you red and sweaty - never an attractive look.
And even when the ingredients in the hotpot are fit for human consumption - prawns, say - I still think there's something deeply wrong about seeing the ingredients in their uncooked state. In the market, yes, but not in a restaurant. It's like watching a play from the back of the stage. Where is the mystery, the suspension of disbelief? When I go to the theatre, I don't want to see Birnam Wood and Dunsinane Hill all flat and made of plywood, propped up by beer crates.
I want food to come to the table cooked, dressed in the reds and greens of Sichuan peppercorns (and with their wonderful aromas wafting through the place) - not all white and naked on a stick, stripped of all dignity.
In fact, I take the whole "come to a restaurant and pay good money to cook the food yourself" as something of an insult. If I have to cook for myself, couldn't I just stay at home?
Why can't other hotpot restaurants do the same as the eminently sensible one I visited in Haikou, Hainan province? There, the food is cooked in hotpots in the kitchen, then brought to the table gloriously ready to eat.
Such a brilliant idea; I'm sure it will never catch on.