Simmering a pot of soup over a fire and adding meat to the broth – hence the term hotpot – originated from Mongolia more than 900 years ago. This cooking method spread throughout China and wider Asia, with each region having its own flavours and ingredients.
Whether you call it hotpot, steamboat or shabu-shabu, there are as many kinds of hotpot as there are regional cuisines in Hong Kong, and what used to be an autumn/winter treat for family gatherings has now become popular all year round.
Broths vary according to region, from Chongqing’s numbingly spicy ‘mala’, Sichuan’s hot pepper, and Manchuria’s sour, to Cantonese fish or pork bases. The stock is basically water, salt and spices, and the flavour of the soup is then enhanced by the ingredients that are added – meat, seafood, mushrooms, and vegetables. But in recent years, chefs have become more creative to attract a younger crowd.
Hotpot favourite Megan’s Kitchen opened its doors 13 years ago. Executive chef Au Yeung Kwok-man wanted to bring his experience working in Western hotel restaurants to hotpot, and the restaurant serves up an East meets West, traditional meets modern hotpot concept . “Traditional Chinese, Sichuan, Taiwan and local styles of hotpot are common in Hong Kong,” says the chef.
His new-style soups range from tom yum koong cappuccino, bouillabaisse and Sichuan super hot chilli and escargot, and he serves ‘classics’ of English oxtail, Malaysian satay, and coriander and preserved duck egg.
“My favourite hotpot is fresh lobster borsch soup as I like the freshness of seasonal vegetables combined with the sweetness and the umami taste of lobster,” says Au Yeung, who creates a new soup base and five to six kinds of meatballs and dumplings every autumn/winter.
“In spring, the most popular broth is the vegetarian carrot, corn, water chestnut and celery soup. In summer, it is the appetising tom yum koong cappuccino.
“In autumn, it’s the nourishing apple and corn soup with spare ribs, and in winter, the full-flavoured tomato and crab soup with a soufflé finish. This particular broth, which we have served since our opening, as well as the tom yum koong base, and the rainbow cuttlefish balls, are popular all year round.”
Au Yeung’s interesting meat and fish balls include cuttlefish ones stuffed with cherry tomato; chicken and quail-egg balls; salted duck, egg yolk and pork balls; and dumplings including beef with black truffle, Korean kimchi; and Peking duck.
In 2016, Vivien Shek opened The Drunken Pot in Tsim Sha Tsui, known for serving hotpot in a contemporary setting: there’s street art on the walls, harbour views to gaze at, and chill-out music.
“Back in 2015, I noticed there weren’t any hip hotpot restaurants in town,” says Shek. “I love hotpot so much, but I never liked the ambience – they were either too formal, in a traditional Chinese restaurant setting, or dai pai dong style, so I decided to create a modern, trendy space featuring urban graffiti mixed with Eastern design elements.
“I focused a lot on food presentation and plating, too, as I believe the way the food looks affects how diners perceive taste.
“We also have an extensive menu of home-made dumplings and meat balls – we exclusively hired two chefs for this – as well as another chef who specialises in xiaolong bao.”
On the menu are custom-made broths, and they also offer four or five popular broths in one. Popular choices include Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, which takes eight hours to make and features sea cucumber, dried scallops, abalone, fish maw, Jinhau ham, lean meat, mushroom and Lung Guang chicken.
“This seafood broth is becoming one of my favourites, because it is well known as a beauty food – it nourishes the skin, hair, and nails, and is good for the immune system, while being delicious at the same time,” says Shek.
Some of the other popular items include satay soup, mixed mushroom cream soup with truffle sauce, and a new white truffle version. They also have Taiwanese stinky tofu and duck jelly with marinated chilli broth.
“I always dip my meat and bean curd rolls into the satay soup, and like to cook seafood in the sake papaya soup and the lobster and tomato broths. As most of my friends love our Sichuan chilli soup, they would enjoy cooking some of their ingredients in it,” says Shek, who opened another restaurant in Causeway Bay after the success of the TST branch.
“I get inspiration from everywhere. For example, I came up with the beer fish soup broth after travelling around Guilin last year. Beer fish is one of Guilin’s signature local dishes, and I loved it so much after trying it.”
Some of the creative ingredients to go into the broths include the seven-colour cuttlefish balls, made with natural ingredients and dyes from vegetables; mapo tofu dumplings; ginger and sand chicken dumplings; and deep-fried, salted egg yolk fish skin.
Newly opened Quan Alley is a Taiwanese hotpot outlet where chef Huang Min-wai makes delicious broths as well as a classic chicken stock served with vegetables and thinly sliced meats.
A popular item is the Oriental Beauty, a rich pork soup made with pork bones, spines, and knuckles, all slowly boiled with Sichuan and black pepper, with red dates, lotus seeds and lily bulbs enriching the soup and adding restorative qualities. The Crimson Pit is another house special, made with more than a dozen ingredients including Sichuan pepper, chilli bean sauce, red chilli and Chinese herbs.
“Eliciting hotness with an initial numbness is one of the unique concepts of Quan Alley involving spicy items, as it is believed to create the best tasting experience, with the initial numbness serving to enhance the appetite,” says Huang, who became a hotpot chef because he likes the idea of family and friends gathering to cook a meal together.
“The Crimson Pit, however, goes beyond mere spiciness as it allows the original flavours of the simmered ingredients to shine through.”
Inspired by his childhood, Huang created a dumpling in the shape of an ice-pop. It comprises a mixture of fresh squid, prawns and pork neck with spinach and honey-orange strips, and is presented in a bowl of slush ice.
Another favourite is the lollipop, made by glazing tofu sheets with sesame sauce and white sesame, and covering them with sesame leaves. The tofu absorbs the soup and flavours explode before the sesame taste and crunchiness takes over.
“The lollipop and ice pops were inspired by my humble childhood,” says Huang. “They were precious and luxurious childhood snacks that I craved.”