And Finally

Spicy relationships

Why a hotpot restaurant has become a popular dating place


Sichuan Haidilao's founders Zhang Yong and wife Shu Ping

Pinduoduo has grown into China’s third biggest e-commerce firm by allowing shoppers who often don’t know each other to combine their orders for bigger discounts. After listing on Nasdaq last summer the four year-old firm is now worth $23 billion.

Its underlying philosophy, that people can achieve more if they come together (one of the meanings of ci in Chinese is ‘combine’) has surprising resonance for China’s singleton millennials

Chen Xiaoyu was so inspired by Pinduoduo that he decided to apply a similar model to his new hotpot restaurant in Chengdu. He even wanted to call it Pinduoduo but was worried about being sued for copyright infringement. So instead he called it Pinzuo, which means “combining seats”.

In China’s first self-styled ‘social media hotpot place’, diners can team up with strangers through an app and split the bill. Chen hopes people will make new friends and even find love over shared pots of boiling chilli soup and mutton.

“One girl called and said you must sit me next to a handsome guy, my future depends on you,”he told National Business Daily.

The idea has gone down surprisingly well in Chengdu, one of the hotpot-obsessed cities in Sichuan province. Pinzuo is usually fully booked by youngsters even at midnight. Many web celebrities visit too and broadcast their dining experiences.

Hotpot is now China’s most popular food, according to the restaurant review and ratings website Dianping. Last year it accounted for 20% of the Rmb4 trillion ($593.9 billion) spent on eating out.

Shares in Haidilao – one of China’s most popular hotpot chains – have surged more than 60% this year, meaning its husband-and-wife owners sit atop one of the fastest growing fortunes in Asia.

Haidilao also tries to make singletons feel more comfortable by putting stuffed animals at tables if people are eating alone

As readers of WiC will know, young Chinese are finding it increasingly difficult to meet potential spouses. E-commerce sites all report that sales of small, single-person-use items are increasing exponentially and the dating website Zhenai says that 70% of single Chinese have never asked anyone out on a date.

However, the messy informality of hotpot dining can help break down inhibitions. Some have suggested this is because diners have to agree on what to order and when to add the ingredients to the central pot. There is also the lucky-dip element— when you stick your ladle in you never really know what you are going to pull out.

All of which keeps the conversation flowing and, if one woman quoted by is to be believed, a person’s behaviour around a hotpot table offers a window into their soul.

“One guy hogged the main serving ladle all night… I never called him back,” she said.

Lastly there are the chemical effects of eating chilli, which causes the body to release endorphins and produces a natural high.

All of which helps people to relax, says

That said, not everyone is a fan of hotpot – Hong Kong celebrity food critic Chua Lam has said he would like to see it disappear from Chinese cuisine as it is one of the “most uncivilised ways of cooking” (see WiC436). That comment also recalls the Bill Murray line from Lost in Translation where he critiques the Japanese equivalent shabu shabu. “What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?” he asks.

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