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Jonesing for Some Great Eats (Big Jones)

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  It has been too long since my last post where I celebrated this blog’s five year anniversary in the most food-filled way possible.  Unfortunately, the little issue of being in a very intense graduate program for speech pathology has kept me from being the best blogger I can be, but that doesn’t mean that it has prevented me from sampling great meals across the currently chilly and snow-covered Chicago.  Today’s entry comes from another Andersonville staple establishment in the form of Big Jones.

In regard to Andersonville, I am well versed in both their traditional Swedish fare as well as the more colorful installations that reflect the more modern side of the neighborhood.  Janice had always played up the delicious plates the Southern American cuisine eatery offered, but I was skeptical they could truly recreate the funky, soulful, and simple nature of some of the original comfort food from our nation’s early history.  Southern American cuisine has an extremely diverse history based on the various ethnicities that came for a better life  or perhaps had been forced into slavery, contrary to Dr. Carson’s interpretation of that chapter in American history.  African slaves brought their cooking styles from Africa and made the most they could with the ingredients we were given.  This gave rise to such staples of Southern cuisine like collard greens, fried chicken, and barbecue in conjunction with the Native American’s lending some of their smokehouse know-how.  It also helped that the English and Scotch-Irish colonists brought their deep frying skills literally to the fledgling American dinner table.  As time went on and Southern Americans made their way north during the first half of the 20th Century looking for jobs or freedom from segregation, these Southern staples made themselves at home in the culinary fabric of cities north of the Mason-Dixon line, including my town Chicago.  Coming back to our dining experience, Big Jones can be reached either by public transportation or parking on the street.  The restaurant overall had a warm interior with a certain flair that reminded us of our trip to Charleston.  Looking over the menu for a drink, I saw that they stayed true to their Southern roots by having a wide variety of cocktails in addition to the Big Jones Bourbon Society.  Given that I’m not one for drinking early in the morning, I found another southern beverage that caught my fancy:  sweet tea.  Tea has always been a part of America’s history.  Boston Tea Party, anyone?  However, I never knew the history behind this drink.  According to Wikipedia, it was originally an expensive drink due to the then costly ingredients of sugar, ice, and obviously, tea.  What’s even more interesting is that pre-WWII, it was actually made with green tea, but due to anti-Japanese sentiments, the government forbade green tea imports.  Thus, Americans came back to the motherland by drinking English black tea after the war.  Either way, I was loving this refreshing glass to start my brunch off right. It was especially satisfying after having sweet teas at other establishments (read:  McDonalds) that boast a sweet tea which is actually unsweetened iced tea.  Big Jones does it right with plenty of sugar that indulged my sweet tooth.   Drink in hand, we were ready to sample the best Big Jones had to offer us Yankees.  First, they brought out some complimentary boiled peanuts as well as beignets.  This was definitely a nod to Southern cooking as well as a New Orleans staple.  The beignets were just as fluffy and powdered-covered as the treasures my parents and I destroyed at Cafe du Monde in NOLA.  The word “beignet” literally means “bump” in French, and I’m sure if we had enough of these rich pastries, we’d have a few more bumps than when we walked in.  While we were savoring the fried bread, we decided to split the andouille platter ($6).  Then I ordered the corn griddle cakes ($12), and Janice ordered the caramel apple French toast.  The andouille (pronounced “an-doo-ee”) sausage is a carry over from French immigrants who decided to make it part of Cajun culture.  Big Jones’ sausage is all hand-made on site, and this particular type consisted of pecan-smoked pork in beef casings.  These cold cuts were accompanied by warm rye bread, garlic aioli, and another southern staple, chow-chow.  This amusingly named condiment/side has a mysterious origin ranging from Acadian immigrants in Louisiana to Chinese rail workers in the 19th Century to even Indian immigrants.  The name is just as obscure with some contesting it comes from the French word for cabbage “chou” while others advocate for the Indian origin story since one of the ingredients, chayote, is known as chow-chow in India.  Wherever it is from, it wasn’t the highlight of the plate since it seemed to just consist of pickled cabbage and peppers.  Other varieties are more diverse including onions, cabbage, red beans, carrots, asparagus, and cauliflower.  The bread, on the other hand, was hearty, flavorful, and the perfect foundation for an open-face andouille sandwich.  The aioli spread had a good amount but not overpowering level of garlic, and then there was the actual sausage.  It was ok but not great.  I think that if it was smoked over a sweeter wood, it would bring a different dimension to the sausage beyond just the spiced pork flavor.  Before we knew it, our plates were being placed before us.  Janice’s place looked picture perfect complete with golden brown bread slices, cinnamon whipped cream, almond slivers, and a heavenly caramel sauce.  The exquisitely carved apple was the jewel on this crown of a dish.  Unfortunately, it isn’t there all the time due to their rotating seasonal menu, but if it is available, definitely give it a chance.  As for my choice, the corn griddle cakes, it was everything Janice made it out to be.  Their origins reach back to the Algonquin tribes on the East Coast and Cherokee and Choctaw tribes in the Southern USA, and they taught European settlers how to prepare cornbread.  As compared to its more plain Civil War counterpart, the Big Jones version also added Spanish and Mexican flair to it with black beans, salsa, avocado, and sour cream.  These savory pancakes were filling but not too much.  It was the best of both worlds since I love pancakes more than omelets, but the two individual elements combined to make one mouth-watering and appetite-pleasing plate.  I highly recommend them if you’re looking for something beyond shrimp and grits.

Overall, I would highly recommend Big Jones’ for great Cajun food.  It might not be as well known as Heaven on Seven or Pappadeaux, but the line out the door every Sunday would tell you otherwise.  This hidden gem provides generous portions of delectable Cajun fare for reasonable prices, especially if you’re Jonesin’ for just a great glass of sweet tea.  See you next time, y’all!

Big Jones Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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La Isla Deliciosa

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Asia is one of the most interesting continents when it comes to cuisine.  You might be asking yourself, “Uh, what’s so special about sushi, korean barbecue, and orange chicken?”  Well, hate to break it to you that there is much more to Asian cuisine than that given the sheer size of the continent and number of different cultures that inhabit its regions spanning from Turkey to Japan.  This geographic spread contributes to the variety found in this corner of the world, but some country’s cuisines are more popular than others in the US.  For example, the food items I previously mentioned are probably the first cuisines that come to peoples’ minds when you say “Asian food”, i.e.  Japanese, Chinese, and Korean food.  Vietnamese and Thai food are more recent entries to the public consciousness due to increased immigration from South/Southeast Asia, and they all have their own special place in the ever expanding American palate.  However, one country that doesn’t get the foodie hype that its other neighbors receive but really should  is Filipino food.  Janice and I got well acquainted with many island delights in Chicago at Lincoln Square’s Isla Pilipina Restaurant.

We’ve walked past this place all the time around dinnertime, and it has been packed without fail.  Naturally, when we went it was no different. IMG_6255 After waiting for a table to open in the funky fresh interior that was bumping an odd mix of rap and oldies out of the overhead speakers, we finally managed to take a seat amidst the madness of the waitstaff toward the back of the restaurant. IMG_6256 Looking over the menu, I could see the influences of a number of cultures including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Spanish.  IMG_6258IMG_6257That last one might come as a surprise to some, but Spain unified the roughly 7,000 islands into the country of the Philippines back in the 1600s.  The name of the country even comes from the name of the king of Spain at the time, Felipe (Phillip) II.  During Spanish colonial rule, the Spanish and Filipino cultures intermingled through marriage and food which still can be seen today in the names of the dishes offered at Isla Pilipina like pata, adobo, and guisado.  It’s a byob restaurant as well if you’re interested in knocking a few back with your meal.  We started the meal with a plate of 20 lumpia Shanghai ($5/ $3 for 10).  The name of this dish comes from the Hokkien (Southern Chinese) word lunpia, and they are clearly carry-overs from the mainland.IMG_6261  They’re basically deep fried mini-egg rolls that according to the menu are filled with pork, egg, jicama, green onions, carrots, soy sauce, and love.  I could especially taste the love above all of the other ingredients.  Seriously though, I quickly learned that there’s a reason why they sell them in a plate of 10 or 20 rolls.  The fried dough that envelops all of the fresh and savory meat and veggies is the best part.  These golden brown, crunchy, and flaky nuggets of heaven are paired with a semi-watery sweet and sour sauce that has some chili flakes floating in it to add a little pep to these pipsqueak poppers.  I highly recommend starting off with them and get a 20 roll plate because they go down way too easily especially if you’re sharing with others.  As for our main courses, Janice got the pancit bihon ($8) with a side of the garlic rice ($6) that apparently everyone on Yelp was raving about.  Pancit, like lumpia, comes from the Hokkien language.  It is derived from “pian i sit” which means “convenient food”.    I could see why since it was basically pan fried rice noodles with sauteed chicken and mixed vegetables.  A simple meal to be whipped together at a moment’s notice if necessary.IMG_6263 I helped myself to a couple forkfuls, and personally, I found it to be quite bland.  The ingredients were fresh and all that good stuff, but it didn’t really taste like much.  Even with the addition of lemon juice from the lemon slices that were provided on the side, I couldn’t really get into the pancit since I was more focusing on the citric tang than the actual noodles.  The same could be said about the garlic rice.  I don’t understand why everyone thought it the be all end all of side dishes. IMG_6269 True, nothing smells better than cooked garlic, but it basically was plain Jasmine rice that was superficially pan fried with garlic.  In essence, it was like long grain white rice with some garlic salt on it.  It’s better when combined with other food if anything, but it’s not rave worthy or even worth your time, in my opinion.  My entree, the lechon kawali ($11), was the opposite of these blander dishes.  This deep fried pork belly is a remnant of both Chinese and Spanish cuisine, including the Spanish name, and it was anything but a shrinking violet in this garden of eatin’.  IMG_6267It was a giant piece of pork that spanned my dinner plate, and it was even pre-cut which was piece de resistance!  Each piece of the lechon was a layer cake of different pork elements.  While the upper portions consisted more of the crunchy, salty pork skin and firm white meat, the lower echelons of the belly was where the money was. IMG_6272 I hit the jackpot every time when I reached the thin layer of fat that gave way to the most succulent and flavorful part of the pig.IMG_6274  Mixing these pieces with the garlic rice was a tasty combo, but the Filipino gravy was a bit of a mystery to me.  While part of it tasted like a sweet steak sauce, it had this hint of musty funk that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  It didn’t ruin the meal at all though.  I was definitely more satisfied with my entree than Janice’s.  If you like bacon or any type of pork product, I highly recommend the lechon, and I’ve heard good things about their pata as well.  Even though it was a lot of food for a reasonable amount of money, I still wanted to try one of the most iconic Filipino desserts:  halo halo ($6).  Meaning “mix-mix” in Tagalog, not me stuttering the name of a Beyonce song, this classic and wildly popular dessert has become quite famous outside of the Philippines thanks to Filipino migration to the USA to typical hubs like Los Angeles and Chicago.  Even Anthony Bourdain has succumbed to its wildly colorful grasp.  It’s a ridiculous melange of crushed ice, red bean paste, white beans, lychee jelly, coconut shavings, coconut milk, and it was all topped off with a scoop of taro root ice cream, a slice of flan, and a cherry.  Nothing too complicated.IMG_6276 Now, if you’ve read any of my other blogs, you know that my relationship with red bean paste is one of revulsion almost on par with my dislike of pasta, so I naturally approached this dessert with a wariness similar to an unexploded ordinance, just ready to blow up in my mouth even though I’m a veteran of trying the gross red bean paste.  Yet, it also had one of my favorite Asian dessert ingredients as well:  taro.  This purple root vegetable may look like a sweet potato, but it is the bomb (a good one) when it comes to taste.  I normally get it in bubble tea, but the ice cream on top of the halo halo tasted just the same.  I don’t know what they do to this tuber, but it literally tastes like vanilla cookies.  It’s like making potatoes taste like chocolate bars.  Mind.  Blown.  Plus, the addition of the Spanish flan, that was quickly picked up by my girlfriend, was a nice touch.  After picking at the parts I knew I liked, I dove into it spoon first. IMG_6278 Luckily, all of the other sweet elements like the coconut and lychee covered up the red bean flavor, and it was like a super diverse slushy.  I ended up mixing the taro ice cream in with the rest of the ingredients, and it was like a purple vanilla milk shake with ice chunks and the occasional sweet jelly piece.  I would definitely go for another halo-halo, but I couldn’t finish it all because it was pretty big as well for the price.

So if you’re tired of the same old sushi or Korean barbecue and/or want a lot of food for little money, set sail for Isla Pilipina in Lincoln Square!
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This Foodie Just Keeps Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along

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Welcome to a retro Masticastion Monologues?  What’s that you say, milkshakes?  Retro?  Well, today’s post focuses on the Red Robin Gourmet Burger chain that is throughout America and known by its signature jingle.  It is one of many burger joints that try to evoke the spirit of 1950s diners that rocked around the clock to strains of Elvis on the jukebox.  While the times have changed since then, and the music has become more interesting (not always better), a good burger with a side of fries will never go out of style.

I went with Janice to the location closest by me at the Oakbrook Center shopping mall.  It was a new addition to the upper level by the Nordstrom’s, but it is quite popular with families and the teenage pods that roam from shop to shop.  However, it is also a fun place to go if you want to grab a cold one with your friends. 46716679_IDs7asvk6P2fAMb1kCe5RF3goIR9CPkJrdDMEyGl8Cc We were there to get a bite to eat before seeing a movie nearby, and it was a pleasant experience.  I looked over the menu and after seeing all of the burgers, chicken sandwiches, and side salads the place had to offer, I went for the Burning Love burger ($10.49).  Janice got the Royal Red Robin burger ($10.79).  However, I didn’t want to just get a burger.  I saw that you could “style” your burger in three ways:  Pig Out with extra bacon (+$1.50), Cantina Jack with mild green chiles (+$1.00), or Fiery Ghost with a ghost pepper sauce, fresh jalapeno pepper slices, and fried ones (+$1.00).  Needless to say, if you’ve read my blog, I love everything spicy.  Whether it’s a deadly pork cutlet in Korea or gastro-intestinal shredding poppers in Portland, Oregon, I can’t say no to the tongue burning experience.  Eventually they came out, and Janice’s burger looked delicious. IMG_4562 It was like a combo of breakfast and dinner where the bacon and eggs got down with the beef patty to make an extremely rich but runny burger.  It was a flavorful meal that whetted my appetite to finally tuck into my devilish basket.IMG_4561  I had tried ghost peppers before, and it was a tough but manageable experience.  However, I was pretty disappointed with my burger, spice-wise.  I was expecting to have my taste buds blown off my tongue, but the red ghost pepper sauce didn’t even make it beyond a weak habanero.  I enjoyed the fresh and fried jalapeno pieces more since they provided a crunch and buttery finish to the salsa, chipotle aioli, and jalapeno cornmeal kaiser bun. IMG_4563 Still, it was a finger licking good burger, but if you’re a real spicehead, you won’t blink with the spice levels.  Janice tried some of the sauce on the tip of her finger, and she couldn’t handle it.  So, I think my tastebuds might be dead or perhaps zombies since I can still taste other flavors.  As for the fries, they were of the steak cut variety, probably tied for favorite along with waffle.  They were on average larger and softer than the smaller crispier ones you might find at McDonalds or Burger King, but they had the perfect ratio of fry to salt flavor.  Plus, at Red Robin they’re bottomless!  So if you feel like carbo-loading, hit up Olive Garden and Red Robin.  You’ll definitely get your money’s worth.  By the end of the meal, I couldn’t even finish all of my fries because it was all so filling and scrumptious.

So if you want to visit a new burger chain that isn’t afraid to be creative with their burgers and get a lot of food for a reasonable price, check out Red Robin! Yuuummmmmmmmmmmmmmm!

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers on Urbanspoon

VizEat: Bringing People Together Through Food

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Hello to one and all to a very special edition of Mastication Monologues!  ‘Why is it so special?’ you might be thinking.  Well, while each post I put on here is special in its own unique way in terms of me trying a cuisine you may have never heard of or perhaps taking down a plate that might make you lose your appetite, today’s entry I would like to introduce you to an online foodie meetup group called VizEat.

Logo+tagline à côté

A month or so, I was contacted by the cofounder of VizEat, Camille Rumani, saying that she loved my blog, and after explaining to me what their company did, I had to spread the word.  They are a small but quickly growing company that currently operates in the following countries/cities:  France, Italy, Spain, Berlin, Bangkok, Hong-Kong, United Kingdom, Tunisia, Belgium, Israel, New York, Boston, Morocco, India, China, Switzerland, Ukraine, Romania, and the Cook Islands.  While it is clear that they have worldwide appeal, let me explain briefly what exactly VizEat does.

What Does VizEat Do?

Basically, VizEat is an online community that reaches out to a variety of people.  Whether you are a master chef, a pastry perfectionist, king of the grill, a brewmeister, someone who loves trying new food and drinks, or just want to make new friends, VizEat is the place for you. Marie-Claude's dinner, Their aim is to turn meals into experiences for people who otherwise may have never met their neighbors or tried a new dish if it hadn’t been for this social networking website.  It could also be useful in another country if you want to experience a bit of local culture through a sit down meal with natives. VizEat-Values What better way to facilitate and lubricate first impressions better than a delicious meal and a refreshing beverage?  If you are champing at the bit to know more, here is how VizEat works.

How VizEat Works

Meet-people-from-all-over-the-world

First, you have to register on their website as a host or a guest or both.

Hosts

Marie-Claude, VizEat host- Crédits Adélie Vernhes

Marie-Claude, a real VizEat host

As a host, you will post information about your meal, i.e. the price, the date of the meetup, how many seats are available, and what is on the menu.  You can also post pictures of the meal and/or yourself, so that your guests have a better idea of who they might be spending time with.  If guests are interested in your meal, you will receive reservation requests, and you are free to accept or reject them as you see fit.  The day after hosting the most amazing meal you have ever thrown, you will receive your meal payment directly on VizEat.  So, everyone in Chicago and the Chicagoland area, sign up to be hosts!  I know there are some great cooks and bakers out there, so why not share your creations with the world, make some new friends, and earn a little money on the side.  Everyone wins!

Marie-Claude interacting with her guests.

Marie-Claude interacting with her guests.

Guests

As for the guests, you can browse the hosts in any of the aforementioned locations in the “What Does VizEat Do?” section.  Once you find a host that is serving a meal you want to be a part of, you can put in your reservation.  You will only have to pay for the meal through PayPal when the host confirms it on the VizEat website.  Once confirmed, you will be able to message with your host in case you have any preferences for the food they will be serving, if you might have some food allergies, or even directions so that you don’t miss out on all the good times with new friends!

A VizEat get together in France

A VizEat dinner in France

So if this seems like something that you would enjoy, sign up by clicking on the “VizEat” picture below the different cuisines at the top of my blog and bon appetite!Magali's wine&cheese 2- Crédits Adélie Vernhes

Drop It Like It’s Hot Pot! Part 2

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Hello again to part two of my journey through a hot pot dinner.  Last post, I spoke about my very brief initiation to the hot pot experience with some fish roe and homemade soy milk, but it was merely a prelude to the symphony of flavors that I hope to fully convey through this amazing new post.

Behold the bounty

Behold the bounty

Before I even sat down at the table, I was advised to change out of my fancy new years eve clothes since hot pot could be messy.  I didn’t think that I would have to dress down in order to eat a simple meal.  When I sat down around the table, first I had to choose between a mild pot and a spicy pot which were on opposite ends of the table.

The more pleasant looking mild pot

The more pleasant looking mild pot

If you don’t know me/haven’t read my previous posts like with the XXX spicy wing challenge, I will have you know that I am quite the chili head.  When most people expect me to not be able to eat their spicy ethnic foods, I just smile and go about my business sampling their cuisine.  This has led to me making plenty of friends down the road during my dining experiences.  Therefore, I took my seat at the spicy end of the table where I quickly saw people throwing in strips of red marbled beef, healthy pink pork, large grey and pink shrimp, and striped bass into the ludicrously red broth.  Later, they added watercress, taro root, and mushrooms since they apparently soak up the spice like a sponge with water.  I found out that David’s family had brought back a packet of chili pepper native to the Szechuan region which is notorious for blazing hot dishes.  While these meats were bubbling in the pot, we passed around small cups of cilantro,  green onions, sesame oil, and soy sauce to put in our bowls.  However, David informed me that it is tradition in Taiwanese hot pot to use a dipping sauce made of raw egg, green onions, and prawn paste.  I wanted to do the real deal, so he made me my own bowl of dipping sauce for my first round of hot pot.  It also helped cool down the smoldering hot meats and vegetables.

Raw egg sauce that would make Rocky proud

Raw egg sauce that would make Rocky proud

In order to get the contents of the pot into your bowl, you are supplied with mini metal wire scoops that look like small butterfly nets.  Thankfully everyone was really helpful with supplying me with my food while I was attempting to get a hang of my chopsticks.  Since I’m moving to Korea soon, I made it my mission to eat the entire meal with chopsticks, and I finally managed to do it!  My first bowl consisted of fish balls, beef, green onions, cilantro, and prawn paste.  The fish balls were made with a semi-firm dough which was dotted with peas and encapsulated the savory fish inside.  The raw egg sauce provided a nice onion/soy flavor to the strong fish flavor.  The beef piece was tiny but succulent, and the prawn paste gave the bowl a nice surf and turf vibe.

Bowl 1

Bowl 1

The second helping I ate contained some striped bass, beef, pork, fish roll, watercress, and mushrooms.  The bass was stewed quite quickly, but it literally melted in my mouth like some sort of heavenly piece of fish butter.  As for the beef and pork, I was a bit flummoxed as to what to do with these large pieces of meat that were cooling off in my raw egg sauce since we didn’t have forks or knives.  Thankfully my friend David said it was cool for me to just go at it, and I wholeheartedly enjoyed each juicy and spicy slice.  The more elongated fish roll was not as satisfying as the ball dumplings, but it seemed to be stuffed with a stronger tasting type of fish.  Plus, I had thought that the mushrooms were initially noodles since they were so long and thin, but in reality they were winter mushrooms.  The cabbage was also delicious.  Even though it was put in last, it contained so much chili flavor that it was like a warm, non-fermented version of the popular Korean dish kimchee.

Bowl 2

Bowl 2

My third bowl (in hot pot, you eat a lot slower and savor the smaller portions) consisted of prawns, mushrooms, watercress, taro root, and pickled radishes.  The prawns were still in their shells and with legs, but I took a mighty bite into their pink bodies to be welcomed by a explosion of flavor.   The mushrooms were a non-factor, but the watercress and the pickled radishes had a similar chili infusion like the cabbage.  This bowl was a bit trickier because the radishes were quite slippery after swimming around in the hot pot, and the taro root kept on disintegrating when I would grab at it with my chopsticks.  I finally managed to get both into my mouth, and the taro was more interesting because texture-wise it was like a semi-mashed potato but possessed a more earthy flavor.  Once I finished that bowl, I was faced with something that reminded me of a type of pizza they serve at Sbarros.

Bowl 3

Bowl 3

It was basically green onions baked inside bread that was coated in sesame seeds and had a crust.  Perhaps this is what Marco Polo brought back to Italy from China.  Pizza origin theories aside, this was probably my favorite part of hot pot.  The bread was golden brown and crisp on the outside while soft and pliable on the inside.  I’m a huge onion and sesame seed fan, so I was in heaven biting into the verdant interior of this onion bread and experiencing the mellow sesame seeds combining with the strong green onion flavor.  It also went really well with the raw egg sauce as a sort of replacement for garlic butter or marinara sauce.

The original pizza?

The original pizza?

After eating a couple of slices, I limped to my fourth and final bowl which had some of the aforementioned ingredients along with a pink fish dumpling.  It was like the other fish dumplings but had a slightly sweeter, more tuna-esque taste.

Bowl 4

Bowl 4

However, the fourth bowl was unlike the others because I had asked David why we had spoons on the table.  He then proceeded to ladle in the devilishly red pepper broth  from our spicy hot pot into my bowl .  This lava in my bowl was pretty spicy but tolerable for me.  Once I finished eating this molten ambrosia, my mouth felt kind of funny, but it turns out that the Szechuan pepper causes slight numbness along with burning in the mouth.

The chili flavor is as big as the pot on the package

The chili flavor is as big as the pot on the package

Even though I couldn’t feel my mouth, it was a sign that I had just experienced an authentic piece of Chinese culture, and I am thankful that David and his family welcomed me into their home to take part in this very entertaining tradition.  Hope you and everyone else has a happy and healthy new year!

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