Premade mix adds spice to hotpot
Hotpot, an iconic Chinese cooking method that cooks raw ingredients in flavorful soup stock, is among the most popular dining options in China. It allows a group of people to customize their own dishes and control the pace so that the food is always hot and fresh.
The key to a good hotpot meal lies in the soup stock, which can be numbing and spicy, sour and spicy, bold or umami. It’s generally created with large quantities of herbs, spices and seasonings to provide intense flavors as well as a liquid soup stock.
Restaurants use premade hotpot stock mixes known as diliao — either in liquid or solid form — to serve orders quickly. When enjoying a meal of hotpot comfortably at home, making the condiments from scratch with high-quality chilis, herbs and spices can guarantee freshness, but it’s also too much work at higher cost. Luckily, the varieties of hotpot soup stocks are available as packaged condiments that can be cooked by simply adding water, bone soup stock or even tea.
These condiments, in fact, can achieve a lot more than making the boiling soup stock. When they are used in cooking some everyday dishes, you may be surprised to find that the flavors of the dishes are elevated to a level that match what you have tasted in restaurants.
The spicy sensation
The Sichuan and Chongqing styles of hotpot are an undying passion. When a famous brand opens a branch in Shanghai, it attracts people who are willing to wait more than five hours — the numbing and burning sensation felt on the tongue is just so fascinating.
Stores carry many varieties of spicy hotpot condiments. In general, there are two categories made with beef tallow or vegetable oil.
The beef tallow condiment is sold as solid square blocks, in which you can see lots of dried red chilis and spices. The vegetable oil version is in liquid form. It’s not as rich as the beef tallow and more welcomed by people who don’t like animal fat.
Typical spices, herbs and seasonings used to make hotpot condiments include spicy dry chilis, pickled chilis, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, aged mandarin orange peel, cumin, star anise, bay leaf, white pepper and ginger.
Spicy hotpot condiment is the secret weapon in a lot of Sichuan-style dishes. The simplest way to use the beef tallow hotpot condiment is to break off a piece and then let it melt in a wok until the aroma arises. From there, add thinly sliced meat or vegetables and toss quickly.
Mapo tofu, the iconic Sichuan dish known for its numbingly good and spicy flavor, can be made at home with ease by using hotpot condiment for beginners.
Adding some of the spicy hotpot condiment in braised and stewed dishes is also a trick to create flavorful sauce without having to buy a dozen kinds of herbs and spices. Smaller blocks of beef tallow hotpot condiment can be found online, which are ideal for cooking dishes with.
Dry pot, which is the wok-fried version of hotpot, is made with hotpot condiment. The ingredients are raw or cooked in boiling water in advance depending on the texture, then stir-fried with spicy hotpot condiment and served with sesame seeds sprinkled on top. Malatang, maocai and chuanchuanxiang are three of the most widespread Sichuan- and Chongqing-style street delicacies. They are not only found in almost every neighborhood in Shanghai, but also ordered by many people as takeout. The three share the similarity of cooking vegetables and meats in spicy broth, and it’s the way the ingredients are cooked that varies.
To make the spicy street food trio at home with better-quality and fresher ingredients, the key is spicy hotpot condiment. You can make skewers of vegetables and meats and then cook in the boiling broth or bring everything together to make a spicy soup dish.
Apart from adding water or soup stock to make the broth, one can try black tea as an alternative that can balance the greasiness and spiciness without interrupting the rich flavors. Eagle tea, or laoyingcha, is a special drink from Sichuan with heat reducing properties.
Suancaiyu, the Sichuan dish that cooks freshwater fish such as grass carp or snakehead fish with utterly sour pickled cabbage and green chilis, is a spicy and sour dish meant to combat the heat and humidity.
When cooking suancaiyu at home, it’s difficult to replicate the intense flavors with store-bought pickles, and most people choose to use the suancaiyu condiments that include pickles, sauces and seasonings for the fish. It can be used as a hotpot soup stock by adding water and bringing to the boil, then dipping thinly sliced fish to cook briefly in the pot.
The condiment can be used to make vegetarian or vegan stews. Because it doesn’t rely on the fish for the flavor, the rich pickles and sauces can cook almost everything, like tofu, leafy vegetables, bamboo shoots and more. A pack of suancaiyu condiment can make a large pot of the dish enough for a group, and you can always divide it into several portions to make spicy and sour dishes quickly, like boiling the condiment with water or vegetable stock and then adding a handful of noodles to cook.
On the lighter side
Hotpot can be light and healthy when the soup stock is made with seafood, mushrooms and vegetables. Packages of mushroom or tomato hotpot condiments are popular as well, and they can make all kinds of dishes easily.
Tomato hotpot condiment consists of vegetable oil, tomato paste, onion and pickled ginger, and it’s perfect to use in tomato-based dishes such as tomato and beef brisket stew, achieving intense flavors without having to make the tomato sauce from scratch.
The chunks of beef brisket are cooked in a pressure cooker in advance with seasonings, cooking wine, soy sauce and water. In a separate pot, stir-fry the tomato hotpot condiment with a little bit of oil and then add the cooked brisket, fresh tomatoes and cubes of potatoes. Add ladles of the soup from cooking the brisket and the dish is ready when the potatoes are soft and flavorful.
Adding the tomato hotpot condiment in sole fish stir-fry can bring a lovely sweet and sour flavor that appeals to children especially.
Mushroom hotpot condiment saves the trouble (and money) of stewing large quantities of fresh and dried mushrooms. It is light and umami without any prominent taste, so adding some in soups and stews can bring the flavor to the next level.
Duck and pickled radish hotpot is a rich flavored variation from Chongqing. The packaged condiment can be used to make soups such as pork rib, beef or duck.