My eyes were burning, and tears were streaming down my face. My nose was running, and I had to keep dabbing my nostrils with a tissue. My ears were ringing, and my face felt like it was on fire, and I started coughing.
"Does it taste OK?" the waitress asked.
"Absolutely, perfect!" I smiled through the tears and took another big bite, the red chilli peppers covering my spoon.
Some of my friends think I'm crazy, but I love the burning taste of spicy food. I always order the spiciest level at restaurants, and I love adding chilli peppers to what I cook.
While a lot of people think of Thailand or India when it comes to spicy meals, China is home to some of my favourite chilli-filled dishes. Hong Kong has many restaurants where you can test how much spice you can handle. Here are some ideas for dishes and places to try them:
Sichuan boiled beef
Sichuan is China's go-to region when it comes to spice. Dishes that come from this province are sometimes so covered with red chilli peppers, you can't even see the food underneath. The numbing peppercorns that go into the dishes along with those red hot peppers are also from there.
Sichuan boiled beef is the best way to sample this wonderfully weird sensation of fiery chillies and the peppercorns. Tender pieces of beef are boiled in a flavourful broth containing both. I first tried this dish at Chuen-Jut Mai Sin Dai Wong, which is at 22 Whampoa Street in Hung Hom. My Putonghua teacher, who is from Sichuan, recommended the restaurant. She said it was the best restaurant in Hong Kong for a real Sichuan taste. They have a lot of great Sichuan dishes, and I ordered everything "big spice". When I told my teacher later, she was shocked. "I only ever order little spice," she said. The food was incredibly spicy. The boiled beef had so many chillies in it, I had to dig down about 4cm to find the beef. It made me cry, but in the best way possible. Despite all the heat, it was amazingly flavourful and absolutely delicious.
Another great place to try this dish is Mask at 33 Tsim Sha Tsui East Station. Mask is more high-end. The decorations are really fun, with Chinese masks hanging from every part of the restaurant. The food isn't quite as spicy, but will still give quite a burn, and they have a larger menu with vegetarian options.
While it may not have the visible chillies floating around like Sichuan cuisine, Yunnan noodles still pack quite a punch. The region is next to Sichuan and also borders Laos and Vietnam, which affects the flavour of their famous noodles and broth.
Yunnan noodle shops in Hong Kong are usually simple. Each one offers ingredients unique to that restaurant. The one thing they have in common is portions: every shop will fill you up with a massive bowl of the thick rice noodles.
These spicy noodles are my favourite meal in Hong Kong, because I can get different ingredients even if I go to the same restaurant. I've tried many shops across Hong Kong, but the one I keep going back to again and again is Wan-Gwai-Chuen Fung Mei Mai Sin at 107 Hennessy Road in Wan Chai. Their broth isn't the spiciest, but their selection of ingredients is top notch. They have many of the standard ingredients you find at most shops, but the reason I keep going back is the beef balls stuffed with hot and spicy chilli paste, which I haven't found anywhere else. Biting into one of those beef balls and getting a mouthful of oozing, spicy chilli is a great surprise.
When it comes to the broth, Jing Lam Zing Zung at 17 Parkes Street in Jordan has a great spicy broth that always leaves my lips swollen and eyes watering.
I've had kimchi-flavoured broths in South Korea and hot chilli broths in Taiwan that have made my ears ring.
You can find many different types of hotpot in Hong Kong, but the Mongolian hotpot at Little Sheep is my favourite. It won't be as blisteringly spicy as a Sichuan or Yunnan broth, and it won't have as many chilli peppers floating in it, but it makes up for a lack of heat by balancing spiciness with other fantastic spices and flavours.
All of the different ingredients make a complex and delicious broth, which then gets soaked up into whatever is dipped in. Personally, I like the frozen tofu, which acts just like a sponge to really capture all the great spicy notes in the broth.
Little Sheep has several branches around Hong Kong, with the largest at 16 Argyle Street in Mong Kok. Be sure to bring along a group of friends, because the best thing about hotpot is the sharing and social nature of the dish. Just make sure your friends also like spice.