Cookware that helped make history

Li Anlan
Clay pots have been in existence for thousands of years. And there's a good reason for that.
Li Anlan

From the sizzling clay pot rice noodles served at streetside eateries to glistening pork belly braised in clay pots, this traditional cookware not only was epoch-making in the history of human development, but also an essential vessel for Chinese families to march through the winter cold.

Clay pots are simple, original cookware with more than 5,000 years of history in Chinese culinary culture. They not only cook food in a variety of ways, but also keep dishes warm for longer so that the delicacies can be enjoyed unhurriedly.

Compared with pots made of metal, which are also excellent in stewing food and retaining heat, clay pots perform in very different ways — they don’t seal in all the moisture as well as cast iron pots and can concentrate the flavors quickly.

Cookware that helped make history

Clay pot is an ancient cookware that cooks food quickly and concentrates the flavor, it’s used for stewing, braising as well as rice and noodle dishes.

Choose the right pot

Chinese clay pots come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each suitable for a particular cooking purpose.

The small pots with short handles, for example, are usually used to make individual servings of dishes like noodles and rice. They heat up and cook the food quickly, and the handle makes carrying the pots more convenient as the pots are usually taken from the stove, staying hot while one enjoys the food.

The larger, deeper clay pots are perfect for stewing and braising, sealing the heat needed to cook the food thoroughly while still expelling the extra moisture through the small hole on the lid.

One of the most popular clay pot dishes of all times is Cantonese-style clay pot rice, or baozaifan — hot rice topped with flavorful cured meats, leafy vegetables and egg, and elevated with a layer of sizzling rice crust at the bottom.

The recipe is simple: soak the rice in water for 30 minutes in advance, slice the cured meat and sausage, chop the ginger, garlic and scallions and make a mixture of light soy sauce, a little bit of dark soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, sugar and water. Then add water to cook the rice in a clay pot, adding some oil to prevent sticking. When there’s no water on the surface and the rice is still very moist, add in the ginger shreds and layer the sausages and an egg on top of the rice. Simmer until they’re all fully cooked and pour the sauce and scallions over at the end. Green vegetables that have been cooked briefly in boiling water can also be placed over the rice to improve the presentation as well as the nutrition.

Cookware that helped make history

Clay pot rice

Braising with clay pots is also easy but requires preparing the ingredients in advance, such as lightly stir-frying or boiling the meats before moving them into a clay pot with condiments to cook further.

The temperature used in clay pot cooking is quite different from using a wok. It’s usually started from a low heat, then turned up to a high heat so the soup or broth boils, then returned to a simmering low temperature again to cook the food thoroughly, whereas woks can start from a high heat.

You can lightly sauté the ingredients in clay pots before adding the liquid to complete braising or stewing, but it’s crucial to avoid bringing something cold into the hot clay pots. Hot water and broth not only speed up the cooking process, but also guarantee safety.

Clay pots are also used to make rich soups, like the classic whole chicken soup. The secret to a pot of sumptuous soup is to add all the water at the beginning and let it simmer. Refilling water during cooking can dilute the soup. And because clay pots do lose moisture along the way, it’s important to add more water.

Clay pots are also used in speedy cooking. The Cantonese-style juejuebao is a quick technique that cooks fresh, raw ingredients in super-hot clay pots, sealing off all the moisture within the ingredients instantly. Seasoning with a splash of flavorful sauces, the meats, fish and shrimps in juejuebao can retain their original delicate or crunchy texture. The idea is similar to quick stir-frying over a high heat, so timing is crucial.

Cookware that helped make history
Li Anlan / SHINE

 Clay pot chicken

The process of making juejuebao also has a wow factor — sizzling, sparkling and fragrant. Some fine Cantonese restaurants often use large shallow clay pots, which are not all that common in households, to cook delicate fish such as yellow croaker in a very short time to preserve the original flavor. The dish is often served tableside as a show to entertain the guests, with the aroma instantly filling the room.

But this type of cooking can be dangerous for nonprofessionals as clay pots can break or even explode when they’re not handled appropriately.

Cookware that helped make history
Li Anlan / SHINE

 Clay pot yellow croaker

Proceed with caution

For those who are new to Chinese cooking and looking to experiment with clay pots, there are certain matters that need attention as they’re not exactly the safest cookware in a home kitchen and need extra care and attention.

Start by buying the right clay pot. Apart from the shape and volume, it’s very important to buy high-quality pots from notable brands in reputable shops. The making of the clay pots involves sourcing the right clay and firing it at the right temperature (which can reach 1,400 degrees Celsius). Pots from uncertified sources may lead to exposure of heavy metals and toxins and they are not safe to handle food.

Clay pots are generally inexpensive cookware but some pots handmade by masters can cost more money.

The handling of clay pots is a meticulous task, starting from seasoning the pot. A typical way of seasoning a new clay pot is to cook some rice in water that fills the pot at least halfway. After the rice softens and the texture is like porridge, turn off the heat and let it cool before discarding the porridge.

When cooking with clay pots, the No. 1 rule is avoiding having the hot pots come in contact with anything cold. That can be cold water or broth, or a cold surface. When it’s necessary to add liquid into the clay pot midway through cooking, always use hot water to prevent a thermal shock. Sometimes liquid at room temperature can also cause the pots to break.

Cookware that helped make history

A meat stew cooked in clay pot.

The clay pots shouldn’t be heated dry without anything inside, and cold pots cannot be placed over a high heat. The safe way is to heat up the pot gradually after adding the ingredients.

When serving clay pot dishes at the table, always use a mat to prevent the hot pots touching the colder surface, particularly with marble tables. This instant alternation of cold and heat may cause the pots to shatter, especially in winter.

Mishandling of clay pots can cause breakages that could be hazardous, whether it’s the fragments that can cause cuts and grazes, or the boiling hot food that leads to burns.

Clay pots should be cleaned after they have completely cooled down to extend their lifespan. It’s also better for the pots to dry them after washing and rinsing, then set them in a ventilated place overnight upside down so that the bottom of the pot completely dries up. Cast iron pots can cook almost all the stewing and braising clay pot recipes as well as the brothy noodle dishes and Cantonese-style clay pot rice, they are great alternatives if you are just hoping to try out the recipes without buying a clay pot.

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