Without a doubt, eating hotpot is one of Hong Kong’s favourite culinary pastimes. When the thermometer drops it’s the ultimate warming food. But it’s not just a winter dish – diners like the communal and convivial habit of sharing a cauldron to cook ingredients even when it’s 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit) outside. Asked why she would have hotpot on the hottest day of summer, one enthusiast shrugs and says: “That’s what the freezing air-conditioner is for.” Hong Kong has no shortage of all-season hotpot restaurants and many offer all-you-can-eat options, letting guests top up their favourite items, usually with a time limit of 90 minutes to two hours. Hotpot’s origins go back anywhere from 800 to 1,000 years ago to the Mongol Empire and its successor, China’s Yuan dynasty, founded by Kublai Khan and his grandfather Genghis Khan. In the summer, Mongol horsemen cooked meat on their spears over a fire – a practice which gave the world the kebab. On winter nights when they were without cooking gear, they used their helmets to boil water and cook meat – which gave us hotpot. Regional styles of hotpot in China Hotpot is ubiquitous across China, with many regional differences in the soup base and ingredients – if you think China has too many types of noodle and dumpling, there are just as many versions of hotpot. Naturally, everyone thinks the one they grew up eating is the best. Yunnan hotpot: Distinguished by its use of regional ingredients such as dried ham, mushrooms and an abundance of fresh herbs and mint in the broth, Yunnan hotpot is spicy more often than not. Guizhou hotpot: This province’s hotpot has a sour soup base enhanced with fish and even tomatoes. The stock is used for cooking seafood as much as meat. Jiangsu-Zhejiang: Hotpots on the eastern coast around Shanghai have a delicate broth; this version is sometimes called the “flower hotpot”, as the chicken stock is infused with chrysanthemum. Hainan: In tropical southern China, people have enjoy a hotpot of chicken broth with coconut meat and milk. It’s usually not spiced at all and diners drink the soup to end the meal. Lime juice is added to the dipping sauce. Anhui: A few years back, Anhui made the bold claim that it was the home of Chinese hotpot. The rest of the country laughed. The eastern province’s hotpot is characterised by clean flavours and a simple pork and radish soup base. Arguably, Cantonese, Sichuan and Beijing are the three most common hotpot styles – although even these can be broken down further. Guangdong (Cantonese): The hotpot most Hongkongers know and love is all about variety, with seafood, meat, vegetables, tofu, dumpling and meatballs, all cooked in a light broth. Some don’t even consider Cantonese a hotpot style because it’s so disparate and vague. These days, the choice of soup bases is as varied as the selection of ingredients. Imaginative restaurants have come up with exotic broths such as Thai lemongrass, Korean kimchi and black truffle. For the indecisive, restaurants generally offer split pots so guests can choose two – or more – different soup bases. A diner’s choice of dipping sauces adds a further personal touch. Using soy sauce as a base, diners get artistic with their condiment by adding raw or fried garlic, fresh coriander, spring onion, chillies, vinegar, satay, ginger, sesame oil, and other ingredients. Fears over new Covid-19 cluster linked to Hong Kong hotpot restaurant Recently, some restaurants have been offering a healthier hotpot alternative, a trend which started in Guangdong. A steam hotpot cooks food on a tray above the boiling liquid. This method is ideal for seafood and makes it difficult to overcook ingredients. Often, a pot of congee (rice porridge) is under the steamer, so condensation from the cooking, and liquid that drips from the pot, flavour the gruel, which diners can enjoy at the end of the meal. Beijing: Not just the capital of China, Beijing is also the capital of Northern-style hotpot. The traditional copper volcano pot is its signature piece of equipment, but its key culinary feature is thinly sliced mutton. In Hong Kong, Dong Lai Shun at the Royal Garden hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui is the torch-bearer of this Beijing hotpot school, serving only mutton from Mongolia. “The country has one of the coldest winters, and grass growing in this environment is full of minerals and vitamins,” explains executive chef Sze Chiu-kwan. “With the organic grass and clean water, Mongolian mutton is more delicate and tender and doesn’t have any unpleasant taste, making it one of a kind. “The mutton at Dong Lai Shun is imported directly from a private farm in Inner Mongolia that only supplies our restaurants. We use the best pieces of 12- to 18-month-old [mutton from] black-headed white sheep as it is the softest, most tender. We cut it as thin as paper for the melt-in-your-mouth texture.” Although the restaurant offers a choice of 15 different broths, chef Sze notes classic Beijing-style hotpot only needs a simple soup. “As hotpot is a simple cooking method; the freshness of the raw ingredients makes a great difference. The old-time classic Beijing hotpot soup base is merely hot water with ginger and leek slices – a clear and mild soup base. Nowadays, the classic soup base served at Dong Lai Shun is a traditional chicken soup.” Chongqing: In terms of popularity, Chongqing hotpot is hot and happening, with the emphasis on the “hot”. The dish is so ubiquitous in the metropolis in western China that the Chongqing Hotpot Association says there are 20,000 hotpot restaurants in the city – that’s one in six of all its restaurants. It’s worth noting there are slight differences between Chongqing hotpot and the version served in the adjoining Sichuan province, including its capital, Chengdu, but both make liberal use of tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorns and spicy chillies. Premium butter or fat is added to the broth for richness. “Apart from the mala peppercorns for our spicy soup base, spice-infused beef tallow and fresh cuts of meat – especially tripe – are important elements in Chongqing-style hotpot,” says Khoo Ee, general manager of business development and marketing for Liu’s Chong Qing Hot Pot. The chain recently returned to Hong Kong, at Festival Walk, under the Gaia Group. “If you’re less of a spice connoisseur, an important trick is to avoid the leafy vegetables, as they tend to soak up the spiciness more,” she advises. Another trick to keep the numbing spices at bay is adding sesame oil, which Liu’s serves in its own cans, to the dipping sauce. The oil coats your tongue and throat so the peppers don’t sear your taste buds. “Although traditional Chongqing and other Sichuan-style hotpot variations are famous for their hot and spicy flavours, the greatest difference from other hotpot styles lies in our soup base,” Khoo says. “The soup is the soul of the meal. It’s infused with clarified beef tallow, spicy fermented bean paste, salted black bean, peppers and four different types of imported Chongqing chillies, and over a dozen Chinese herbs and spices. “Even though we have a very specific recipe, our mala soup base can be tailored to varying spice levels.” How to enjoy hotpot during Covid-19 Before it was etiquette. Now it’s social safety precautions. Here are some basic steps for enjoying hotpot while maintaining health and hygiene. 1. Use different chopsticks – two pairs for everyone. One set is for putting raw food in the broth and taking it out, the other to eat with. It should be common sense now: you don’t allow anything that touches your mouth to contact anything that others may touch. It also protects you from the germs from uncooked meats. 2. For the same reason, use only your own ladle to cook ingredients. In previous times, it was common to just use whichever ladle is available, but now people shouldn’t be using the same utensils These dishes help keep the Chinese warm during brutal northern winters 3. Don’t share foods or dipping sauce. Traditionally, it’s a hospitable gesture to cook for others and serve them, but using your chopsticks and ladle to deliver food to others increases the possibility of contamination. Instead, invite others to try certain items for themselves rather than putting morsels of food into their bowl. 4. Let the meat fully cook before adding new items; eating undercooked food is how some people get sick. One common scenario: your food is just about done, but before you take it out, someone else drops raw chicken or pork into the broth. Now your dumpling is awash with germs and could lead to bathroom adventures later. Allow items to fully cook and take them out before adding more raw meat and food. 5. Be sure the broth is boiling – if it isn’t, the temperature might not be high enough to kill all nasty bacteria when ingredients are added. You don’t need a thermometer – just make sure it’s bubbling. Similarly, when the staff refill the evaporated pot with extra broth, let it come to a boil again before resuming cooking. Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .