A hotpot for all tastes to heat up those winter nights

Hotpot is a Chinese winter staple and an all-time favorite answer to the question of "what's for dinner?"

Hotpot is a Chinese winter staple and an all-time favorite answer to the question of “what’s for dinner?”

It’s also one of the most socially interactive meals, as people are seated around a pot of boiling delicacies to share food and joy.

That’s why some people say, if something cannot be fixed with one meal of hotpot, then have two.

Hotpot is one of the living fossils of Chinese cuisine with an origin that dates back to the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280). It was popularized in the later Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-589) when people cooked various kinds of meat in hotpots.

By the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), hotpot was already a traditional favorite.

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), there was a unique banquet tradition known as qiansouyan (千叟宴), which translates as dinner banquet for a thousand elders, as the emperors invited thousands of elders to celebrate special occasions.

The grandest royal banquet was held four times in history, which celebrated Emperor Kangxi’s 60th and 70th birthdays, in 1713 and 1722 (he celebrated the 70th birthday one year early as a pre-celebration — he died on December 20, 1722), the birth of Emperor Qianlong’s great-great-great-grandson (1785) and Emperor Qianlong’s abdication (1796).

The banquet in 1785 was a hotpot dinner party so the food would remain hot throughout the celebration. The main meats were lamb, venison, pork and chicken.

There are many varieties of hotpot across China, marked by different regional cuisine, with different traditions and etiquette.

Spicy hotpot

Due to the humid climate in the Sichuan Basin region, people in Sichuan Province and Chongqing city eat lots of spicy and tongue-numbing dishes that help to combat the humidity.

The basic elements in the spicy hotpot broth include beef tallow, Pixian doubanjiang (fermented broad-bean paste), ciba lajiao (a glutinous chili pepper condiment made by grinding dried chilis that have been soaked in water with tender ginger and garlic), a selection of different chilis, green Sichuan peppercorns and other herbs and spices.

Offal is an essential part of spicy hotpot especially in Chongqing. Dishes like beef tripe, goose or duck intestine, beef or pig aorta, pig brain, kidney and blood tofu are the must-eats.

The spicy broth removes the scent or smells of the offal and gives it a rich flavor. Offal dishes have very different textures, like the chewy beef tripe, the crunchy beef aorta and soft pig brain.

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Spicy hotpot is known for the intense flavors and the use of offal.

To cook offal dishes perfectly, the people of Chongqing have developed a technique one can follow easily without memorizing the exact cooking time.

After taking a piece of beef tripe with chopsticks, dip it in the boiling broth for one second, which is called one down, and take out immediately, which is called one up.

The beef tripe should be cooked with seven ups and eight downs, as overcooking the tripe would result in a texture that’s quite hard to chew.

For duck or goose intestine, one only needs to do three ups and three downs.

Chongqing spicy hotpot is always served in a round or square pot divided into nine equal sections, so different ingredients can be cooked in separate slots.

In addition, the spicy hotpot also cooks vegetables, mushrooms and fish to balance a meal. Spicy beef slices made by coating thin slices of raw beef in ground chili and peppercorn as well as fried crispy pork slices are also common in Sichuan and Chongqing.

Another important tradition in eating spicy hotpot is that the choice of dipping sauce must have a sesame oil base, as it not only adds a unique fragrance to the ingredients, but also acts as a cooling aid to tone down the level of hotness. Ground chili pepper and/or garlic paste can be added in the sesame oil for stronger flavor. It’s considered unauthentic when eating spicy hotpot with sesame paste sauce or soy sauce.

Chaoshan beef hotpot

While the spicy hotpot follows the concept of cooking rich-flavored ingredients in an intensely flavored broth, Chaoshan-style beef hotpot is just the opposite — it’s about cooking the freshest beef possible in a light broth, so the full flavor of the meat can be appreciated.

At Chaoshan beef hotpot restaurants, the cuts of beef are finely sorted so diners can sample the unique and specific flavors and textures. Popular offerings include diaolong, the meat on the back of the beef which is usually the prime cuts of rib-eye or sirloin, xiongkoulao, a white colored soft tissue in the brisket, wuhuajian, the beef hind shank and so forth. Chaoshan beef meatballs are also the highlight of the hotpot, as they are handmade with beef only without adding any starch like flour or bread crumbs. The very chewy meatballs need more time to cook, so remember to toss them in the pot early.

The broth is usually stewed with beef bones, and because it’s fresh and full of flavor.

The first thing to do when eating Chaoshan beef hotpot is to enjoy a bowl of the beef soup with some finely chopped celery on top.

Restaurants often recommend diners follow the basic rule of eating the lean meat before the fatty cuts. Most of the beef slices should be cooked around 10 seconds. But fatty ones may need three minutes or more.

Beef offal like tripe, tongue and heart are also popular. The non-meat sides like fried bean curd sheets, okra, spinach, tofu and bamboo shoots are cooked after eating all the beef dishes.

The dipping sauce of choice when eating the Chaoshan beef hotpot is shachajiang, an adapted version of the satay from Southeast Asia. The sauce is rich in flavor with a hint of sweetness, so it complements the fresh beef very well.

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Chaoshan beef hotpot.

Beijing mutton hotpot

In traditional Chinese medicine, mutton or lamb is considered an ideal protein for winter because it’s warm and nourishing. Mutton hotpot is the go-to wintertime meal in Beijing.

Qing Dynasty-style hotpot uses the high-quality mutton from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, which is cooked in a special charcoal-fired copper pot.

The quality of the mutton is the most important part of making good Beijing mutton hotpot. A way to assess the quality of the meat is to serve the mutton slices on dry plates, if the slices stick on the plate when it’s held vertically, the mutton is of excellent quality. Fresh mutton also turns white or grey after being dipped in boiling water.

The meat is preferably sliced by hand rather than by machine, so the flavor and texture are much better. The hotpot that cooks fresh mutton meat rather than frozen is also called reqi yangrou, or heat mutton.

Mutton tripe is also a must-try dish when eating Beijing mutton hotpot.

The go-to dipping sauce is a sesame paste-based thick sauce seasoned with fermented bean curd juice, chopped scallion, garlic or cilantro.

The non-meat dishes for mutton hotpot include tofu, Chinese cabbage, tonghao (Glebionis coronaria) and mushrooms.

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The Beijing mutton hotpot.

Coconut chicken hotpot

Cooking the tender chicken in fresh coconut water with slices of coconut flesh is a relatively new hotpot that has become popular.

As fresh is the key word of coconut chicken hotpot, the quality of the chicken must be outstanding.

Chickens from Qingyuan in Guangdong Province and Wenchang in Hainan Province are the preferred options because they are aromatic and quite fatty with thin, smooth skin.

The broth of the coconut chicken hotpot is simply fresh coconut water, and the chicken is the first dish to be cooked. Restaurants sometimes provide a timer so diners won’t overcook the tender chicken. After enjoying the coconut chicken soup, other meats like beef and vegetables can be cooked. The fresh sprouts and mushrooms work very well with the light hotpot.

To make a dipping sauce for a fresh tasting hotpot like this, one can use a light soy sauce base with some chillis, lime juice, cilantro or scallion.

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Coconut chicken hotpot.

Congee hotpot

Cooking meat, fish and vegetables in plain congee is a variety of hotpot from Shunde, Guangdong Province, as congee is an important staple in Cantonese cuisine.

Congee hotpot is especially popular in wintertime, because after cooking chicken, thin slices of fish, eel, beef as well as pork meatballs, mushroom and so forth, diners can enjoy a congee that has fully absorbed the delicious flavors from all the ingredients.

As the congee is the star of the show, this hotpot doesn’t include offal because the flavors would overpower the congee. A simple light soy sauce or shachajiang sauce goes well with a congee hotpot.

Ti Gong

Congee hotpot.


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