Samantha David sips, dips and stirs her way through the delicious world of hot pots
It’s a familiar scene for anyone who’s grown up in a Chinese household: a group of people – both young and old – seated around a table with either chopsticks or soup spoon in hand, as focused on the simmering metal pot at the centre of the table as much as the conversation happening around them. The stock is bubbling, the sauces prepared, the table is overflowing with platters of ingredients… now it’s just a matter of what to cook and eat first and jostling with dining companions for pot space.
There is no denying the iconic status hot pot (also known as steamboat) has gained. An especially welcome treat during the colder months in places such as China and Japan, this communal culinary affair steeped in history and significance has also been gaining popularity year-round in Southeast Asian countries.
It is believed that the history of the hot pot is at least a thousand years old. Some argue that it originated in Mongolia during the Jin Dynasty before spreading to and becoming popular throughout China. Always a social experience as much as a gastronomic one, the hot pot is commonly enjoyed as a means of family bonding, especially for the reunion dinner that’s held on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
The main ingredient of the original hot pots was probably meat such as beef, mutton or horse; in time, regional variations developed that included seafood such as fish, prawns and cockles, a wide range of vegetables and even noodles and niangao (glutinous rice cake).
From its humble beginnings, the hot pot has evolved to become a high-end culinary experience. In Singapore, for example, luxurious versions are served at Imperial Treasure Steamboat Restaurant at TripleOne Somerset and Shabu Shabu Gen by the Les Amis Group. The latter takes its name from shabu-shabu, a Japanese-style hot pot featuring thinly sliced meat boiled in water – one of the few regional variations similar to Chinese hot pot.
What sets these premium dining establishments apart?
“It’s all about strict quality control and offering excellent ingredients,” explains Taoki Mishima, manager of Shabu Shabu Gen.
“A good soup base is crucial. Popular stocks include mackerel and tuna, but tuna has higher acidity. So instead, we use bonito – which is in the same family as mackerel and tuna – as the stock tends to give a fine aroma without overpowering the taste of the ingredients.”
How to “hot pot”
What about steamboat etiquette?
“There are some general rules to keep in mind, like using one pair of chopsticks to cook the raw food in the hot pot and another pair just for eating,” says Au-Yeung Kwok-man, executive chef of Megan’s Kitchen, one of Hong Kong’s most well-known hot pot restaurants.
“Every diner should also have their own small dish of dipping sauce. No sharing! This is all for hygiene.”
Around the globe
Even within China, the variety of hot pot broth ranges from mild clear soup (that gets thicker and more fragrant as more ingredients are added) to the hot and spicy. Take the Chongqing ma la hot pot for instance, which uses beef tallow and copious amounts of chilli and Sichuan pepper. Exotic meat options such as ox stomach and duck intestines are also on the menu in places such as Chengdu’s renowned Huang Cheng Lao Ma.
Beyond China, plenty more variations exist. In Japan, the “beauty collagen hot pot” is popular. The broth features collagen, which many Japanese believe is essential for good health and good skin. Tsukada Nojo, a hugely successful hot pot chain, is a good place to try this intriguing creation. Its signature “Golden Collagen” chick stock is stewed for more than eight hours, resulting in a silky smooth, rich broth.
Another Japanese option is sukiyaki. Served with sliced beef, tofu and vegetables, you dip the ingredients in raw egg before placing them in the pot to be cooked. Tokyo’s Yoshihashi restaurant – a favourite of fashion designer Issey Miyake – serves up marbled premium wagyu beef in a gleaming copper pan, to be cooked at the table in your own private room.
Budae jjigae (also known as “army base stew”) is one of South Korea’s most iconic culinary creations. Originated during the Korean War, this hot pot is made with kimchi (fermented raw vegetables) and processed meats such as hot dogs, ham and, in some places, Spam (pre-cooked tinned pork) – which is considered a luxury food in Korea. In Hongdae, Seoul, the ever-popular Simpson Tang restaurant is a hit with both tourists and locals, including Korean celebrities such as Lee Chang-min of pop group 2AM and K-pop star IU. This budae jjigae specialist uses whole ox bones to make the soup stock and has unique side items such as soy sauce butter rice to go with the spicy meat stew.
Southeast Asia is not to be left out of this simmering culinary sector. The Thais have their own version of hot pot known as suki featuring a fiery dripping sauce, nam chim suki, made with chilli, lime and coriander. Claiming itself as Thailand’s first luxury hot pot restaurant, Ping’s Hotpot in bangkok’s Pathumwan Princess Hotel offers four broth options, including spicy tom yam.
Lau is what the Vietnamese call their hot pot creation. Beef slices are generally used, but other exotic ingredients, such as ox tongue and eel, aren’t unheard of. Today, lau is also available in flavours such as Cantonese-style chrysanthemum. Hanoi’s restaurant Sy Phu is one of the few places that serves this street food in an elegant setting and is popular with foreigners and locals alike.
From the cool air of the Himalayan foothills to the sticky heat of the tropics, richly flavoured, comforting stews made for sharing clearly have widespread appeal. Whichever of the many meat- or fish-based hot pot forms you choose, you can certainly count on this dining experience to lift your foodie soul.
SilkAir and Singapore Airlines fly to the Greater China region, Japan, South Korea and all 10 countries in Southeast Asia. For more information on these exciting destinations, please log on to www.singaporeair.com/silkair
Read more exciting stories at SilkAir – A Joy to Fly!