Lift your spirits with hotpot


2005-11-26 05:50




As the temperature dips, the capital city comes alive with its hotpot offerings.


Nothing could be better than to gather around a steaming hotpot with friends and "chew the fat" while sampling a bottle of iced beer.


On a bitter winter day, the hotpot experience not only warms your body but also lifts your spirits.


As you step into a hotpot restaurant, you feel like you are venturing into a steamy paradise the scent of "la" (spicy red chili) in the air, fresh mutton rolling out of the kitchen.


The sauna-style meal starts with platters of thinly sliced meat and mounds of fresh green vegetables. Second later, everyone is gathered around a tabletop hotpot billowing steam like a witches' cauldron.


Then comes the moment to play with your food plunging slices of beef, mutton, mushroom, cabbage, tofu and lotus roots in the boiling broth in the pot and, when it has been cooked to the desired degree, fishing it out and dipping it into an appropriate sauce.


The do-it-yourself nature of the meal makes it a highly personalized and fun experience.


For every taste


Over the past decades, hotpot eateries have sprung up everywhere in Beijing and some of them have left their mark on the ever-changing culinary landscape.


Traditional Beijing mutton hotpot is not the only favourite of picky diners. Sichuan spicy hotpot, Japanese Shabu Shabu (personal hotpot), Thai curry hotpot, as well as Cantonese hotpot are some of the other offerings tantalizing local taste buds.


Among these, Sichuan spicy hotpot, which combines the flavour of ma (numbing peppercorns) and la, remains a constant favourite with Beijing diners. "The Sichuan hotpot has spread like wild fire as the winter dinner in Beijing," said Lei Ming, the owner of a Sichuan-style hotpot restaurant in Dongzhimen, downtown Beijing.


The mala hotpot, Lei joked, has something to do with people's obsession nowadays with seeking excitement. "The heavy taste of the spicy broth and abundant ingredients satisfy hearty appetites. That is what really makes Sichuan hotpot so popular," Lei said.


Each restaurant has its own top-secret recipes, involving the elaborate preparation of seasonings. Since the soup is what counts, preparation of the broth has all the makings of black magic. "The basic stock is produced by boiling beef bones for at least 12 hours until all the marrow is out," said Lei. He declined, however, to reveal the most important spice in the hot stock, only saying the main ingredients generally include chilli, Sichuan peppercorns, fermented soybeans, ginger and garlic.


Although the Sichuan hotpot strikes a chord with many lovers of spicy food, not everyone enjoys the hot, thick soup. Therefore, restaurants offer different levels of spiciness.


To cater to a wide range of palates, most restaurants now serve partitioned hotpot. The pot is divided into two with an S-shaped partition, with peppery broth in one part and plain broth in the other. This enables chilli eaters and non-chilli eaters to huddle around the same table. If a diner finds the chilli soup too hot, he or she can switch to the plain soup at any time.


"Despite the fact that chili makes the tongue swell and brings tears to the eyes, spicy-food lovers simply cannot get enough," said Wang Xin, a 24-year-old Beijing woman working in a media company who calls herself a die-hard fan of Sichuan hotpot.


"The spicy hotpot is rich in Vitamin C, and that is good for rejuvenating aged skin. Consuming spicy food makes people beautiful," she said, showing off her smooth, glossy complexion as proof.


If you have had enough of sweaty Sichuan hotpot or are eager to try something new, you will not want the choices waiting.


New options


Cantonese hotpot is a good choice for those who are fond of mild flavours. Since the Cantonese have a tradition of making flavoured soup, good hotpot broth comes to them naturally.


Mushrooms of various kinds, dried or fresh, and seafood are used widely. The broth is simmered with multiple herbs so anything cooked in it has a rich flavour. As a bonus, most of these herbs are supposed to nourish your health in winter.


The typical dip is shacha sauce which consists of dried shrimp, peanuts, garlic, hot pepper, tea leaves and salt. Soy sauce and fresh raw egg are usually added to it.


Also worth mentioning is beef ball hotpot from Chaozhou of Guangdong Province. The selling point lies in its tasty meatball.


Chefs choose only the finest beef and beat it into beef paste with an iron stick. The result is an especially tenacious and tasty meatball, which some people say can bounce on the ground higher than a ping-pong ball.


Some restaurants add innovative twists by combining traditional hotpot with foreign flavours.


Thai-style hotpot is one of the most popular of these new concoctions. Generally featuring the curry, hot and sour broth, these restaurants can definitely heat up the taste buds of the most fastidious diner.


When boiled in the curry, mutton, beef and vegetables are tasty enough to have without a seasoning sauce.


The trend towards healthier eating habits has given a big boost to fish hotpot in the capital.


Fish hotpot with sour soup is famous in Southwest China's Guizhou Province but has also become popular with Beijing diners even though here the fish is not put into the hotpot live, as in Guizhou.


Mushroom hotpot offers a good alternative to the regular hotpot not only because of its rich and succulent taste, but also because of its numerous health benefits such as being low in calories, fat and cholesterol and rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre.


Some restaurants offer at least 25 different varieties of fungi, much more than you think is possible. When dipped in garlic oil or hot sauce, the fungi acquire a delicate taste, which you cannot get from other hotpots.


With new styles of hotpot catching on, new ways of hotpot dining are also being introduced.


For those who have had their fill of traditional hotpot with many people washing their chopsticks in the same pot, there is another hotpot option individual pots for you and you alone.


Personal hotpot originated in Japan. This new form of hotpot dining arrived in Beijing with the opening of Shabu Shabu eateries all around the city. (Shabu means "personal hotpot" in Japanese.)


Many other hotpot eateries have adapted this new way and offer a small pot for each patron ensuring that "you eat what you throw in."


"It seems to be more 'civilized,' but hardly lessens the pleasure of hotpot," said Lu Qing, a 30-year-old working in a joint venture who claims to have tried most of the city's best hotpot restaurants.