What is Chinese hotpot and where does it come from? The questions that boiled over into a national controversy

With different parts of China all laying claim to the title of hotpot’s hometown, we look back at the history of the dish in all its different varieties

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2018, 5:46pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2018, 9:18pm

The decision by a town in southeastern China to declare itself the home of hotpot prompted a backlash from other parts of the country, which all have their own views on the correct way to make the dish.

It is little surprise that they reacted in the way they did. It is, after all, one of the most popular dishes in the nation of 1.4 billion people and comes in a huge variety of recipes ranging from the fiery to the fragrant.

Many of these regional variations have now spread across the world and can be found in restaurants from Nairobi to Buenos Aires.

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It is also big business. Hotpots account for 22 per cent of the dishes sold at restaurants across the country, according to a 2017 report from food industry giant Dianping-Meituan.

One of the main hotpot franchises, HaiDiLao, is lining up investors for what looks to be a nearly US$1 billion initial public offering in Hong Kong.

So as the row about the dish’s true origins continues to bubble away, we look at the different varieties found across this sprawling nation.

So what is a hotpot?

It depends on who you ask. The basic formula is the same: a shared simmering, bubbling vat of broth in which the diners cook their meats, vegetables and other ingredients.

But like China’s spoken language or climate, hotpots vary widely across the country – from the spicy, numbing heat of Sichuan to the fragrant chrysanthemum tastes of Jiangsu.

The exact ingredients used vary considerably. Different parts of the country make different broths while the constituent elements often reflect the country’s diverse geography and climate.

Depending on where you are in China, ingredients such as cheese-filled dumplings, tofu puffs and glutinous rice sticks can all feature.

Beijing’s hotpot is all about simplicity

China’s capital is home to the Old Beijing-style hotpot, which inherited its central ingredient – mutton – from the northern nomadic tradition.

In its traditional preparation, the thinly hand-sliced meat is cooked in a volcano-shaped copper pot. Meats and vegetables are added to light broth seasoned with fragrant mushroom, ginger, and scallions.

The final ingredients to be cooked in the pot are simple: stomach meat, sliced lamb, tofu, green vegetables and thin rice noodles.

Purists will insist that the ingredients must be added in that precise order.

A variation found in other parts of northern China replaces the sliced lamb with chunks of sheep vertebrae.

Sichuan’s “ma la” hotpot numbs the senses

The southwestern province of Sichuan is home to a spicy variety that has become internationally renowned, in part due to international chains like HaiDiLao and Xiaolongkan.

Though they have subtle differences, both Sichuan’s capital Chengdu and the neighbouring municipality of Chongqing rely on peppercorns to give it a mouth-numbing spicy flavour known as “ma la” in Chinese.

He Qiao, a Chengdu chef, said the city was hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

He believes that Sichuan peppercorns and chilis “can disperse both the humidity and cold inside our bodies, which helps keep the balance between yin and yang”.

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Unlike in Beijing, there is a much wider choice of ingredients for diners to chose from – basically, anything goes from congealed blood to cheese balls or live shrimp.

Hotpot culture is strong in this part of the world. Chongqing residents often claim that one in five restaurants there is a hotpot place.

Anhui ‘simple but delicious’

Guangde in the southeastern province of Anhui kicked off the latest controversy by unilaterally declaring itself the hotpot hometown,

However, this variety is less well known compared with Beijing and Sichuan’s versions and features a heavily flavoured broth with local, seasonable vegetables, which is often cooked in the home.

“The simplest pot is pork stewed with radish. It’s simple, but incredibly delicious, especially in winter,” said Mian Lugui, a university student from Guangde.

Yunnan favours the sour and Guangdong likes seafood

The Beijing and Sichuan varieties may dominate China’s big cities, but an array of different recipes can be found throughout the country, reflecting the produce and culture of their home regions.

Yunnan in the southwest often uses ham, Guizhou in the south is known for flavours such as its sour hotpot and its use of ingredients such as cow intestine.

In Jiansgu on the east coast hotpots have a lighter flavour and are cooked with chrysanthemum.

The southern province of Guangdong, home to Cantonese cuisine, is known for its fragrant soup base and its emphasis on seafood.

“Because the climate in Guangdong is relatively hot, people do not eat chilli. So the local hotpot is not spicy and they use spring onion, ginger, peanut oil and soy sauce instead,” said Zhou Chao of Beijing Cooking School.

The history of hotpot

The origins of this communal cuisine are winding and disputed and it is not clear which place can truly claim to be the original home of the hotpot.

Anhui’s claim to be the hometown of hotpot outraged devotees of the Sichuan and Chongqing varieties, who claimed ownership of the dish.

The first archaeological evidence may lend weight to their claims. Pots that date back nearly 2,000 years and may have been used to make an early iteration of the dish have been unearthed in the province.

The first references to the dish appeared in literature soon afterwards in texts that were written during the Three Kingdoms era.

“Its history is at least 1,700 years old,” said Richard Zhang, the director of the Sichuan Cuisine Museum in Chengdu. “In the Three Kingdoms era [220-280], people cooked in copper pots, but it was not popular at that time. By the time of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, people used the hotpot to cook food gradually.

“At first, it was popular in the cold north of China, and people used it to cook all kinds of meat. Further developments in cooking technology led to the development of more variations of hotpot.”

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But others believe that the dish as we know it today probably has its roots in the 14th century.

Some accounts trace the roots of Beijing hotpot to the days of the Mongol empire around 800 years ago.

A legend from that time tells of a emperor impatiently waiting for his lamb leg to cook as he prepared for battle. His ingenious chef decided to speed up the process by chopping up the meat and boiling it, thereby giving rise to a new dish.

“In the Ming and Qing dynasties [from the late 14th century to early 20th century], some dignitaries liked hotpot very much, and they began to put different seasonings and ingredients into hotpots for the different flavours,” said Zhou from the Beijing Cooking School. “Now, we have a lot of different ways to cook the different dishes.”

The dish really began to take off in the early 19th century and the first appearance of what we would today recognise as Sichuan hotpot dates back to this era.

Its emergence is credited to the Yangtze River fisherman of the 1820s, who used to boil their meats in a communal spicy broth to keep warm and stretch their limited budgets as far as possible.

Some enterprising locals spotted an opportunity and began using giant communal pots to prepare the broth, introducing the dividers that many people use today to keep their ingredients separate from other diners’ meals.

The first restaurant known to have served the dish appeared as late as the 1930s. Fittingly enough it opened in Chongqing, whose own variety of the dish is now flourishing across the globe.