Despite its humble appearance, claypot rice is a time-consuming dish that takes plenty of know-how to get right. The results are well worth the effort and a properly made claypot rice is one of the most comforting of winter treats.
It all starts with the rice, which should be soft, dry and slightly al dente. The grains on the side should form a golden brown crust that separates easily from the pot. Finally, there needs to be a balance between all the toppings you pile onto the rice.
Most dai pai dong and cha chaan teng offer this dish during the colder months but the following five places edge out the competition.
Expect to wait for a table at Kwan Kee in Sai Wan. This tiny eatery is always packed and for good reason: it's one of the few places in town that still makes claypot rice the traditional way, over a charcoal fire. Everything is cooked fresh to order and, although it takes close to 30 minutes to prepare, this process guarantees a layer of perfectly crisped, crusty rice at the bottom of every pot.
Another plus is the extensive menu, with more than 20 savoury toppings. The preserved Chinese sausage is easily a favourite, boasting meat that's satisfyingly greasy and tinged with sweetness. Fans also swear by the eel. It's exceptionally tender and is best enjoyed when served under a blanket of chillies, garlic and black bean sauce. You can enjoy the eel as a solo topping but regulars pair it with succulent chunks of chicken.
While Kwan Kee's charcoal stoves give it an obvious edge, other places, such as Wun Hing Lung have done well for themselves without this added luxury.
Formerly a dai pai dong located in the Lower Ngau Tau Kok Estate, its claypot offerings have become popular despite being prepared over a humble gas hob.
The restaurant highlights bold, savoury flavours with most of its claypot dishes based around preserved ingredients or heavy sauces. The favourite topping is minced pork with bits of diced cuttlefish or pickled vegetables. Another variation of this meat patty is available with a salted egg yolk glistening in the centre.
The rice is given a quick stir in the pot about two-thirds of the way through cooking to ensure that the crust browns evenly without burning. There is the occasional miss when the rice turns out a little too sticky, but on most tries the grains remain distinct, especially when coated in a film of sweet soy sauce.
Wing Hap Shing is a family-owned cha chaan teng in Sheung Wan that's been in operation for more than four decades. The claypot selection here has always been highly regarded. Instead of cooking the dish on the stove top, the claypot rice is baked in the oven.
Owner Hui Song-chiu claims that this heats the rice evenly and keeps the flavours consistent throughout the dish. The only downside to this method is that it doesn't produce a definite charred rice crust, but Hui makes up for it by ensuring that the rice itself is nothing short of flawless. He achieves this by first rinsing the rice under hot water before baking. This simple step cooks the surface of each grain and the resulting rice becomes fluffy and easily separated.
Wing Hap Sing's rice is the perfect canvas for the dozen or so traditional toppings on the menu. Try the signature sliced beef rice, which has a raw egg mixed in while it's still piping hot.
Aside from cooking technique, the quality of ingredients also makes a huge difference in a claypot dish. That's why there's no fixed menu at Choi's Kitchen in Tai Hang. Items change regularly depending on the freshest ingredients available on the day. Similar attention is given to the rice - a blend of several Thai varieties flavoured with garlic oil.
If available, order the pork marinated in shrimp paste. The flavours are expertly balanced with the pungent condiment drawing out the meat's natural umami before it soaks into the rice.
Eel in chilli-spiked black bean sauce is another solid effort, especially since the owners only make this dish with the best, fattiest catch from the market.
For something slightly more offbeat, head over to Chuen Moon Kee in Mong Kok. This place offers a few classics, but it's the novel ingredients that set it apart from the rest.
Market-fresh seafood is the speciality here - impressive since claypot restaurants tend to shy away from delicate ingredients that are easy to overcook. Diners can top their rice off with anything from scallops rested on garlic and vermicelli to baby abalone flavoured with mandarin peel.
Chuen Moon Kee constantly updates its selection. The most recent additions to the menu include a black truffle paste. After all, anything goes when it comes to claypot rice.
All things rice:
263 Queen's Road West, Sai Wan
Tel: 2803 7209
Wun Hing Lung
Shop H, G/F, Tak Bo Garden, 3 Ngau Tau Kok Road, Kowloon Bay
Tel: 2156 0322
Wing Hap Shing
113-115 Jervois Street, Sheung Wan
Tel: 2850 5723
9-11 Shepherd Street, Tai Hang
Tel: 3485 0501
Chuen Moon Kee
419 Reclamation Street, Mong Kok
Tel: 3760 8855