The Bubbling Hotpot Craze
Almost every culture in the world has developed a stew or a broth-based dish. It’s not only delicious but also comforting, nourishing and acts as the flame that heats the body on brutal winter nights.
So, it’s not surprising that Chinese hotpot has taken the world by storm. Almost a quarter of all new restaurant openings in China include it on their menus. Overseas, in Los Angeles, Toronto or New York City, most new Chinese restaurant openings are hotpot joints. Even when it’s not a Chinese restaurant, there can still be a Chinese hotpot option. On a recent trip to Zurich, a fellow writer and I went to a famous fondue restaurant that devoted an entire page of their menu explicitly to Sichuan-style hotpot. There is a pot craze happening around the world, and it’s not just smokin’, it’s boiling!
While hotpot is conquering the globe, Asians have been developing, reinventing and localising it for centuries. In Japan, there is Shabu-shabu where the soup base consists of a pure kombu stock and people usually dip slices of beef or Napa cabbage in the broth to cook before dipping in a ponzu or sesame sauce. In Korea, hotpot is known as Jjigae, and the soup stock is often filled with kimchi for a sour and spicy kick with the addition of tofu, enoki mushrooms and a host of different meats. In Thailand, there is Jim Jum, which usually has a sweet and savoury pork broth with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves as its base. In China alone, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of different versions ranging from the famous chilli-laden Mala hotpot from Chongqing, to the heavy seafood style in Guangzhou. But these days you can find most versions throughout China with the exceptions of particular local specialities like yak meat and wild mushrooms from the mountainous regions of Yunnan, to Tibet and the infamous “cow dung” hotpot in Guizhou.
No matter where you have it, there will always be three defining characteristics: a boiling pot (that comes in a range of styles) of broth on a portable burner, a host of ingredients including meats, vegetables and carbs to cook in the soup base, and a complementing dipping sauce.
It’s unclear where the practice of hotpot started. Towns across China lay claim to be its birthplace, but much is unknown. It’s not even clear that hotpot is a Chinese practice. It could have been founded and popularised by the Mongols or Manchurians while their empires dominated the region, though others theorise that the tradition of cooking in a pot of liquid over an open flame dates back as far as the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220).
What we do know is that the ingredients used in the hotpot usually reflect the culture and class of the diners. Historically, everyone from the most impoverished villager to the emperor of China would use hotpot as a medium of feasting – the former for sustenance, the latter for savouring delicacies. This is perhaps another reason hotpot is so popular: it crosses class boundaries and is accessible to all in one form or another. But given a choice, we would all be gorging ourselves on Kobe beef slices, lumps of fresh lobster meat and tender pieces of geoduck.
This brings us to Macao, where fancy food is at its finest, and there is no shortage of hotpot restaurants. Lotus Palace at The Parisian Macao is a seafoodie’s dream. Try one of their premium sets and savour succulent Canadian lobster, fresh abalone and prized baby fish maw. It’s a cornucopia of delights that you dip in the supreme soup stock of your choice. Usually for higher-quality ingredients and seafood, a gentler, more subtle stock is ideal such as fish maw with chicken soup or white and bone with sweetcorn. Also, make sure you don’t overcook your seafood, or it’ll turn quite rubbery. Razor clams, for example, only need about five seconds in a boiling pot for their desired texture. So keep a close eye on your catch.
One of the best aspects of hotpot is that the cauldron of soup gets more flavourful as the essence of the ingredients is infused. This makes for a hearty soup that you drink afterwards for that cosy feel.
If you want to kick it up a touch and try something more spicy, head over to Ping and try their signature Sichuan spicy broth. Order the finely sliced Iberico pork and Wagyu beef and dip them into the red-hot brew for five to 10 seconds for an optimised texture. No hotpot is complete without some bouncy balls so order handmade cuttlefish balls with pâté or briny shrimp balls mixed
with dried scallop. Also, don’t forget to order the fried bean curd to mop up the soup for a truly explosive spice experience.
For a steal of a deal, go to Golden Court in Sands Macao. They have a Boston lobster hotpot set for just MOP398, and an Angus Beef set for MOP298. The sets include prawns, grouper fillets, wontons, shrimp paste with crab roe, scallops, whelks and an assortment of fresh vegetables and mushrooms. Feast in the comfort of their large dining room with earthy wood furnishings and auspicious red accents.
Every occasion is right for hotpot, so set your next dinner date and choose one of these fine restaurants. Hotpot is a convenient way to enjoy an interactive, communal experience with friends and loved ones. Perhaps that too is why it’s so popular – because it brings people together.