How to bring this classic Chinese culinary tradition into your own home
Legend has it that when Kublai Khan was leading his troops on a long journey into battle, he suddenly craved mutton stew. So he ordered his troops to set up camp, and the cook began preparing the dish. But as the sheep were being slaughtered, the enemy suddenly advanced upon them. Kublai Khan ordered the mutton to be served immediately so that he would not go into battle on an empty stomach. The cook decided to slice the mutton paper-thin so it could be cooked quickly in boiling broth. He served it to the general and – of course – Kublai won the battle. From then on, the flash-blanched mutton became a celebrated dish. Though the verity of this tale may be doubtful, the popularity of mutton hot pot, or shuanyangrou, is a certainty, especially in Northern China.
Nothing is more simple and perfect than the concept of hot pot: Take a vessel of any kind, fill it with liquid such as water (though gourmands will demand broth), and heat it up any which way you can. When the liquid reaches the boiling point, submerge bite-sized pieces of fresh meat or vegetable, cook for a minimal amount of time, dip into a sauce for extra flavor, and eat! There couldn’t be a more no-frills method of cooking.
And yet, hot pot can also yield some extraordinarily flavorful and tender results. Today, this basic Chinese method of dining has morphed into a myriad of forms, with many regions across China boasting their own signature style, each more tantalizing than the next.
Mutton hot pot is a favorite for Beijingers, as mutton is believed to be especially effective in heating the body; in the depths of an icy northern winter, a hot pot dinner is a great way to keep warm with family and friends. Chongqing, on the other hand, may never see ice during the winters, but hot pot is nonetheless a quotidian practice there. One of the Four Great Furnaces of China, Chongqing is perennially hot and muggy, so locals love to eat their mouth-numbing, tongue-burning foods to induce sweating, which they believe rids the body of excess heat and moisture. It should surprise nobody that Chongqing-style hot pot is considered one of the spiciest gastronomical experiences around.
To make this hot pot base, an incredibly diverse variety of spices are first gently stir-fried to release their flavor before the broth is added. An authentic Chongqing-style hot pot will have an oil-to-water ratio of 6:4, and the oil should be dyed a bright scarlet from all the chili peppers. The different flavors should be balanced and in harmony so that none of the spices dominates the others. The robust flavors of this aromatic broth are perfect for masking the gaminess of innards, and Chongqingers like to dunk tripe, blood pudding, lung and other delicious organs that can be stewed for a long time in the hot pot.
When you’re having hot pot at home, it is probably best to go with Cantonese. This southern-style hot pot, with its emphasis on the nutritional value of the broth and a minimal amount of additives, can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Start by buying a cut of lean pork and simmering it with a few carrots for a simple homemade broth. Alternatively, you can simmer a whole chicken, or even an abalone, for a richer and more impressive taste. Investing in an electric hot plate with a built-in hot pot setting means you don’t have to worry about accidents involving little fingers and naked flames. Lastly, stock your hot pot pantry to include these basic ingredients for dipping sauces: sesame paste diluted in sesame oil, soy sauce, black vinegar, chili paste, fermented tofu, chopped cilantro, chopped scallions and garlic.
The best thing about hot pot is that anything goes: thick- or thin-cut meat, meatballs, fresh or frozen seafood, tofu, dumplings. Vegetables can be either green and leafy or hearty winter types like pumpkin, lotus root, kale, winter melon and sweet potato. Ingredients cut thin and left to boil for just a few minutes are ready to eat in an instant. Keep in mind that it’s a good idea to separate utensils for eating and cooking, and water should be kept at a steady boil to ensure a sanitary cooking temperature.
Inside, find a few recipes for some basic hot pot staples. What are you waiting for? Get dunking!
Meatballs (Makes about 20)
250g ground pork (shourouxian)
2tbsp minced fresh ginger
1 1/2tsp cornstarch (dianfen)
2tsps sesame oil
1 egg white
1tsp ground white pepper
One inch of lettuce root (wosun), finely diced – Optional
Mix the ground meat with the ginger, cornstarch, sesame oil, egg white, salt and white pepper until it is thoroughly combined and becomes a thick paste. Add the diced wosun and mix well. (Alternately, any kind of vegetable that holds its shape after boiling can be used, such as celery, water chestnuts or carrots. Though optional, they will give the meatball more texture and bite.) To form the meatballs, hold some of the mixture in your fist and squeeze it out between your thumb and forefinger.
Pork Wonton (makes 25-30)
For the wrappers:
2 cups flour
1 egg, beaten with a pinch of salt
1/4 cup water
Mix the beaten egg with 1/4 cup water. Sift the flour into a bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in the egg and water mixture and stir together with the flour. Gradually add water to form dough. Knead the dough for about five minutes until smooth. The dough should be quite dry and firm with good elasticity. Cover and let rest for about 30 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out as thin as possible. Cut into squares about 2 1/2 inches on each side. Sprinkle both surfaces of the wrapper with a generous amount of flour before stacking them up. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
For the filling:
150g ground pork
1tbs dried shrimp, minced
1tsp ginger, chopped
1/4tsp ground white pepper
Mix all ingredients together thoroughly until they form a thick paste. Before you wrap the dumplings, you will need to prepare a dish of beaten egg yolk. Place a teaspoon of meat filling in the center of the wrapper (not too much, or else the wrapping will burst). Dab egg yolk along two adjacent edges of the square wrapper, then fold in half and squeeze the edges to seal in the filling. Dab more egg yolk along the new edges and fold into a dumpling shape.
Bean curd, cut into squares
Chinese wolfberries – Optional
Collect several vegetables that will hold their shape after boiling; choose ones with different colors, such as enoki mushrooms, yellow and green pepper, spinach or kale stems or wosun. Slice the vegetables into thin strips. Take a square sheet of pressed bean curd, spread on some of the meatball mixture from the previous recipe, and place some of the slices of vegetables diagonally across the square sheet. Roll up the sheet and secure with toothpicks. Decorate the points of the toothpicks with vitamin-packed Chinese wolfberries ( gouqi). Soak the wolfberries in hot water for several minutes before using.