How to choose ... a sandpot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:00am

If you go into any neighbourhood kitchenware or hardware store, chances are you'll see an array of rough pots lined up against the wall, almost always with a bucket of water nearby. These Chinese sandpots (sometimes called clay pots) are excellent, inexpensive cooking implements.

What do they look like? Pale, sand-coloured on the outside with a dark brown, shiny interior. They come in different shapes - the most common are narrow on the bottom and wider at the top, or squat (but sometimes tall) and roughly barrel-shaped (thick in the middle but narrow at the bottom and top). Sandpots always come with lids, and they usually have a handle off to one side. The pots are sometimes reinforced with wire wrapped around the exterior and most of them have a small hole on the lid, which lets steam escape.

What are they used for? Depending on their shape, they can cook everything from the daily pot of rice (it imparts a lovely, smoky taste you don't get from an electric rice cooker) to stews, soups and braises.

What to look for? Cracks. Look at the pot closely for visible cracks and, if it seems fine, have the vendor put the pot in the bucket of water. If there are any cracks that you didn't notice before, there will be a tiny row of bubbles along the crack's length. If the crack is thin enough, it's probably still fine to use, but if it goes all the way through the pot (from the interior to the exterior), water will leak when you lift the pot from the bucket.

Are they as fragile as they look? They're surprisingly sturdy. You have to take the usual precautions that you would with all clay or ceramic cookware: don't put a hot pot down on a cold surface, don't put an empty pot on a direct flame, don't add cold water to a hot pot and put a filled pot over a low flame and gradually increase the heat - in other words, avoid giving it any 'shocks' in temperature. If you do accidentally crack the pot, it's still fine to use as long as it doesn't leak (check by filling it with water).

Which shape to buy? It depends on what foods you usually cook. For rice and braised dishes, pick the type that's wider at the top (it's easier to get the ingredients in and out). For soups, especially long-cooked Chinese herbal soups, the ones with narrow tops are usually better because they allow less steam to escape.

Where to buy them? If your neighbourhood doesn't have one of these handy kitchenware or hardware shops, head to one that does. The area of Graham Street, Central, with all the food vendors, is especially good because you can also pick up any ingredients you might need to cook in your new sandpot.