Special: Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations
Hot oil, peppercorn and chili pepper eating contests. On the sidelines of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations, the Chengdu Panda Food Festival is giving foodies a chance to burn their tongues and numb their lips.
While Sichuan cuisine has many styles and forms, its signature spice is found in nearly every local favorite – including hotpot. The Hotpot I-Mart is one of the biggest attractions during the food fair.
In the city of Chengdu alone, there are over 7,000 hotpot restaurants, and data shows that some 70 percent of hotpot places across China are in fact Sichuan spicy hotpot. And the pot is moving across borders.
Local industry leaders participating in the Hotpot I-Mart are showcasing their latest hotpot related products and giving out free samples to lure consumers. /CGTN Photo
Chengdu hotpot chain Shudaxia has already opened its first store in Japan and is now eyeing Singapore, Malaysia, and even the U.S. and Australia by the end of the year.
The biggest challenge though is how to convince people to give hotpot a try.
"Initially, it was not easy to expand overseas," said Zeng Ming, the retail GM for Shudaxia Hotpot. "To non-Chinese customers, we have to help them understand not only the dishes we serve but also stories behind our restaurant decor so they can start appreciating this dining experience."
Shudaxia has enjoyed higher profit margins since branching out overseas with the average price per person doubling while costs pretty much remained flat.
And they're not alone. Laomatou hotpot is also gearing up to go abroad. The firm believes that in addition to quality improvement, service is the key to higher yields expected from markets like the U.S.
"In addition to taste and freshness, service and dining experience are also important. These help lead to more sustainable business abroad," said Huang Wei, brand director for Laomatou Hotpot.
According to Meituandianping, China's largest online urban guide for restaurant reviews and group deals, hotpot is not often found in western reference guides like Michelin.
However, the firm is including 11 hotpot locations in its own global restaurant reference – the Black Pearl list.
Meituandianping launched its Black Pearl Chef Club during the Chengdu Panda Asian Food Festival — a band for elite chefs that can help bring more fame to Chinese cuisine. /CGTN Photo
"Western people have a hard time reviewing hotpot because they focus more on cooking skills. Yet hotpot doesn't require much cooking in the kitchen. But we believe it can also go premium in the sense of how fresh the ingredients are, as well as desserts and appetizers they offer," said Yin Rui, the CMO of in-store business for Meituandianping.
Yin adds that chefs and restaurant management teams are playing a crucial role in taking Sichuan cuisine like hotpot overseas not only by maintaining food quality, but by helping to bridge cultural differences.