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Fire in the belly

By Wu Ni | Shanghai Star | Updated: 2014-11-14 10:49

Fire in the belly

Hotpot: Cooking meat and vegetables in a steaming pot of broth is a popular way to eat in winter. [Photo provided to shanghai star]

Nothing chases away the winter chills like a steaming pot of boiling broth with slices of meat and bundles of vegetables dropped in to cook. Nothing heralds the arrival of winter better than the traditional hotpot. Wu Ni takes us on a culinary tour around China to sample the variations.

Beijingers call it shuan yangrou , Mongolian mutton hotpot. In South China’s Guangdong province, they call it da bianlu, or steam boat. In the northwestern Ningxia Hui autonomous region, they simply call it guozi, or the pot. And in Sichuan in the southwest, they call it huoguo, the hot pot.

With China’s vast expanse of terrain and terroir it is natural that this popular winter dish has developed such colorful regional variations.

Soup bases, ingredients, sauces, vessels and even heating sources may differ, but the idea is common. It’s a communal gathering around a big, steaming hotpot, an easy, popular and almost primitive epicurean feast for when the mercury drops and wind starts to bite.

As steam rises from the bubbling pot, delicious aromas fill the room. A wide range of ingredients is dropped into the simmering broth, to be cooked according to individual preferences. Family and friends sit around the pot, chatting, laughing and eating, creating warmth that comes from inside out. Hotpot cuisine is believed to have originated and spread through China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), hotpot was popular in both courtrooms and courtyards, feeding emperors and stablemen.

"Hotpot was served at each meal from the fifteenth day of the tenth lunar month. There were assorted hotpots and mutton hotpots. In Northeastern China, people placed pickled cabbage, blood sausages, white-cooked pork, chicken and pig’s tripe into one pot. We had this kind of hotpot most often.

"Sometimes we also cooked pheasant in the hotpot. For almost three months a year, hotpot was a must on the dinner table." This is according to an extract from the book Memoirs of the Forbidden City Maid.

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