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Ambitions simmer in China's main 'hot pot city'

CHONGQING, China--Thousands of vats of hot pot seasoning thicken the air around Nie Ganru's home with a miasma of chili as flame-red paste, thick with oil, bakes in the sun.

Nie lives and effectively breathes hot pot, the spicy cook-it-yourself communal Chinese meal that made his fortune, and has built a pot-shaped six-story museum dedicated to the dish.

Now his hometown, the megalopolis of Chongqing, is seeking national and ultimately global recognition for the food.

“It's numbing, it's hot, it's very flavorful, it has an aroma that hits you in the face, and that's why everybody likes it,” says the 70-year-old tycoon, who eats it about every other day.

Seated at a wooden table crowded with dipping options, Nie plunks capsules of duck blood into a simmering broth teeming with oil, chilis and hot and numbing Sichuan peppers. Others ladle out oil-coated slices of lotus root and cool their tongues with pickled vegetables.

“Everyone gathers around a table to eat and it's harmonious, it's lively, it's warm — it's a great environment,” he says.

The museum houses hundreds of pots Nie has collected over more than a decade, including one supposedly used in the palace of the Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor in the 1700s and another dating to the Western Zhou dynasty of 1046 to 771 BCE.

Emperors and Confucius

Hot pot originated a century ago as a low-brow meal for peasants squatting by the river to cook ox tripe and other offal, but has since followed China into prosperity.

The first restaurant opened in the 1930s and the meal's popularity spread when Chongqing became China's capital during World War II, drawing the displaced from around the country.

As China's economy exploded in recent decades, hot pot too has boomed, with other regions offering different varieties and upscale venues serving delicacies such as fatty mutton slices, rabbit kidney, prawns and mushrooms.

By Nie's telling, hot pot also played a starring role in modern Chinese history.

Communist leader Mao Zedong shared the meal with Nationalist rival Chiang Kai-shek before ousting him in civil war in 1949, his exhibits show.

Another mural depicts paramount leader Deng Xiaoping treating officials to hot pot in the late 1970s while strategizing the Reform and Opening overhaul that would transform the country.

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This photo taken on Feb. 22 shows hot pot food at a hot pot museum and factory in Chongqing.

(AFP)

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