A hotpot festival is staged in Kunming, Yunnan province. [PHOTO BY REN DONG/CHINA NEWS SERVICE]
Boasting both the best and largest number of hotpot restaurants in the country, Chongqing was named "China's hotpot city" by the China Cuisine Association in 2007.
According to the Chongqing Hotpot Association, there are more than 50,000 such restaurants in the city, employing at least 3.5 million people. The entire industry is estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of yuan.
The traditional spicy chili oil hotpot is divided into nine sections because in the past, several people shared one pot and put food in their own sections.
To meet the demands of those who cannot eat such spicy food, Chongqing hotpot restaurant owners have developed three soup bases: spicy chili oil broth, a clear broth (usually chicken soup) and a broth that is a mix of the two.
Local people say the development of Chongqing hotpot is linked closely with women from the city who own most of the well-known restaurants. The best-known is He Yongzhi, owner of the Little Swan chain.
The 65-year-old is director of the Chongqing Hotpot Association, and is often known as "the queen of Chongqing hotpot".
In 1982, she opened a small restaurant with only three tables. Now, there are more than 300 Little Swan eateries in China and overseas.
"Chongqing hotpot is just like the city's women－spicy, smart and open-minded," He said.
In 1984, she devised the split hotpot－half spicy, half mild－in order to please all types of diner.
Inspired by two colors－green and yellow－in the waters of the Yangtze and Jialing at their confluence near Chaotianmen pier－she had the idea of creating a double-flavored hotpot.
He's innovation soon spread to all the local hotpot restaurants, attracting an increasing number of visitors from other areas.
As the leader of the local hotpot industry, He plays an important role in establishing the Chongqing cuisine through an annual festival. In 2007, the city set a Guinness World Record when more than 100,000 people simultaneously ate hotpot during the festival.
"I have a bold idea to host a big hotpot party on the Great Wall," He said.
Other large hotpot chains joined with He to promote the cuisine overseas, such as Pei Jie, Qin Ma and Liuyishou, with the latter even setting up an international branch, with the aim of opening 100 outlets worldwide.
There are more than 200 Chongqing hotpot restaurants overseas, including those in the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Singapore, Spain and the United Arab Emirates, according to the association, and there is strong growth momentum.
The Chongqing government also pays great attention to the cuisine's development.
In 2012, it announced a plan to build Chongqing into a "food capital" on the upper reaches of the Yangtze, featuring hotpot and other local specialties.
Under this plan to build the city into a well-known international travel destination, Chongqing hotpot will become a local cultural brand.