"IF YOU GO TO SICHUAN, you won't find this so-called Chongqing chicken pot that everyone in Hong Kong is eating now," says Sam Wong, a partner in the 66 Hotpot restaurant chain, which specialises in the spicy dish.
Restaurants offering gai bo have been popping up all over the city recently. Translating literally as "chicken pot", it's the hottest ticket on hot pot menus this winter.
The term usually denotes a spicy, heavily flavoured chicken dish often cooked with copious amounts of onion, shallots, garlic, chilli and other spices, topped with fresh herbs such as coriander, served in a thick, pre-heated stone or cast iron pot, in which the food sizzles as the dish is being served.
The herbs are tossed in tableside so they wilt with the heat of the pot and emit an irresistible fragrance. Once diners have finished eating the chicken, a popular option is to order soup to deglaze the pot. This becomes a rich, flavoursome base for regular hot pot.
Wong says that at his restaurants it's not just about chillies and peppers; the dish includes more than a dozen spices, such as cinnamon and cardamom, as well as lemongrass and peanut sauce.
"The chef who developed the recipe was trained in Western cuisine rather than Chinese, but he has the Hong Kong palate in mind. It balances sweetness, saltiness, numbing spices and heat. We customise the level of spiciness so everyone can enjoy the dish. Although we aren't able to make it completely non-spicy," he says.
For chilli fiends, 66 Hot Pot offers a mala sauce to add to the hot pot afterwards, although Wong says most people choose a less spicy broth, made with chicken, pork bones, and Jinhua ham.
In 2012, hot pot obsessive Esther Lam opened Supreme Restaurant with her husband, after they closed their pork bone hot pot restaurants.
"About 10 years ago, Hongkongers were obsessed with pork bone soup, but recently it's been all about Chongqing chicken pots," she says. "My husband and I really came to like the fragrant flavours of chicken pots, but found the queues everywhere else too long, so we opened our own chicken pot restaurant."
Lam now has five outlets around Hong Kong. Catering to a younger audience, the menu is friendly on the wallet. Lam says the low price isn't at the expense of good ingredients.
"We ship our spices directly from Sichuan, and we get fresh chickens brought in every day. They're not killed in Hong Kong, but they're still very good."
While it doesn't specialise in chicken pot, Da Hong Pao in North Point has a similar offering called Shenzhen chicken pot, named after the city of its creation.
What it lacks in numbing Sichuan peppercorn, it makes up for in dried chillies, so it can still be spicy. Diners are encouraged to order a soup for regular hot pot afterwards.
At Bang Bang Modern Chinese Cuisine in Tsim Sha Tsui, however, the follow-up hot pot is not an option.
"We think our dry version is more suited to Hong Kong tastes," says Tony Wan, senior officer at Bang Bang, who recommends eating the dish with plain rice to soak up the sauce.
"Our recipes are quite different from other restaurants."
The mala dish includes dried squid and pig's stomach, as well as mushrooms, such as king trumpet, oyster and brown beech.
They use fresh Longgang chickens, bought at the exact weight of two catties and 10 taels (1.6kg).
These birds are known for their meatiness and suitability for braising.
Consistency is also important for 66 Hot Pot. They have standardised the measurements in their recipes with a margin of less than 10 per cent.
"We want to make sure that even if a chef leaves, we are not going to end up with a different product," says Wong. This approach has made expansion easier, and in just over a year, Wong's team has been able to open two outlets.
The chef at Bang Bang hails from Sichuan, but Wan says "he's been in Hong Kong a long time and understands what locals like".
Aside from the signature mala version, Bang Bang's menu includes several other types of chicken pot, such as a fancy abalone and sea cucumber option, and the choice to have the chicken served in a "toast box", essentially a toasted, hollowed-out loaf of bread.
"We started doing that with desserts initially, but thought we'd try it with a savoury dish. It's worked well. People like it," says Wan.
Without much consensus as to its cooking methods, ingredients, origins or even serving vessel, it looks like the chicken pot is yet another delicious product of Hong Kong's culinary imagination.
66 Hot Pot
• 33 Nelson Street, Mongkok, tel: 2392 4966
• 15 Pine Tree Hill Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2702 9666
2/F Top View Mansion, 10 Canal Road West, Causeway Bay, tel: 2487 2968; and other branches
Bang Bang Modern Chinese Cuisine
Shop L409, The ONE, 100 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2369 9825
Da Hong Pao
19-23 Ming Yuen Street West, North Point, tel: 2566 5586
Eating Plus Company Limited
• Greenary Plaza, 3 Chui Yi Street, Tai Po, tel: 2667 6772
• Metro Mansion, 251-261 Shau Kei Wan Road, Shau Kei Wan, tel: 24613336
• Hand Wai Court, 21-23 Un Chau Street, Sham Shui Po, tel: 2167 8336
Come Come Chicken Pot
11/F Kyoto Plaza, 491-499 Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 28919017, and other branches around the city
2/F Java Road Municipal Services Building, 99 Java Road, North Point, tel: 9860 2203