Host of memories come to the boil in neighborhood eatery

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No visit to Chongqing is complete without sampling hotpot.

In the southwestern metropolis-home to 30 million people-hotpot is not just food but a way of life.

The pot of boiling spicy soup is a reflection of local people's memories of family, friends and lovers. In our lives, something always happens in a hotpot restaurant.

Local people love eating hot and spicy food, probably due to the humid climate in the city.

Most of us first eat hotpot from a young age. I first remember having it when I was 8, or perhaps younger. My parents would make hotpot at home or take me to restaurants at least once a week throughout the year, even in the scorching heat of summer.

I still love hotpot. Even when I lived away, in Beijing and Washington, United States, I would try to find Chongqing hotpot restaurants. And to my surprise, my countrymen have taken this food around the world.

Going to a hotpot restaurant is a celebration of life. We will always find a good reason to treat ourselves-anniversaries, birthdays, promotions, farewells or greetings.

It is a tradition for Chongqing people to eat hotpot before leaving the city or soon after arriving home.

Even when we are sad or worried, we comfort ourselves with hotpot.

Five years ago, I experienced my first earth tremor in Chongqing after a magnitude 7 quake hit nearby Sichuan province. Still in shock, I felt in need of hotpot to calm down, and immediately drove my parents to a restaurant.

When I popped a piece of cooked ox stomach-my favorite dish-into my mouth, it immediately calmed my nerves.

There is a saying among Chongqing people that if you meet some difficulties, go and have hotpot; if one meal cannot help you solve them, two will definitely cheer you up.

As we love hotpot so much, the city is full of restaurants serving it. As competition is fierce, there are many outstanding outlets and we can never agree on which is the best. Everyone has their preferences.

I often go to a less-than-glamorous eatery called Big Dragon in an alleyway near my parents' home. It opened at least 20 years ago and has never changed.

It is always crowded, even at midnight, and a long line forms during peak hours. The dishes are fresh and reasonably priced, service is quick and considerate, but the secret is the soup base and homemade chili pepper sauce.

Although there are so many copycat outlets in Chongqing and other cities, the boss keeps Big Dragon small and has never opened a new branch. He even put up a large sign in the shop saying: "There is only one Big Dragon in the world. No branches."

I have spent many nights dining there with friends. They may have gone away now, but Big Dragon is here to stay, and holds all my memories.

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