A few days ago, Mr Chua Lam, long-time author of a number of Chinese cookbooks and TV-host of Chinese cuisine appreciation shows, made the astounding remark that “hotpot is a cultureless form of food, and it should disappear.”
Mr Chua made the comments in an appearance on the Chinese talk show Day Day Up, when he was asked what dish would he like to see vanished from the face of the earth. The ensuing reply “hotpot” and the elaboration that “hotpot totally lacks cultural significance. You just throw some ingredients into a pot. I don’t get what’s delicious about it” prompted a furore of angry replies and reprimands in cyberspace.
Few knowledgeable in the Chinese culinary tradition could deny its place amongst the world’s Parthenon of great cuisines, and even fewer professing love and admiration for the cultural depth and diversity of Chinese gastronomy could reasonably question hotpot’s place in it.
Having said that, Mr Chua’s casual disregard for the cultural and culinary significance of the hotpot is perhaps not entirely unreasonable. He is probably not alone.
For example, earlier this week, Australian metalcore guitarist and vegan advocate Jona Weinhofen tweeted a picture of a bubbling hotpot with the words “Meat eaters be like ‘vegan food looks and tastes gross.’ And then eat something that looks like leftover dishwater.”
Ignoring the crass cultural insensitivity and simmering neo-colonialist attitude, a most generous reading of that comment might see Weinhofen’s words as an indication of some kind of complete incomprehension of the joys of hotpot.
This incomprehension is perhaps partly gastronomic and partly operational – as plenty of visitors of the then new hotpot restaurant Shuang Shuang in West End London found themselves befuddled by the very manner of eating hotpot.
Even Fuschia Dunlop, one of the few in the West conversant in the language of Chinese gastronomy, described in her column at the Financial Times that her first Chongqing hotpot experience as “literally a baptism of fire and probably the most baffling meal I’ve had in China.”
Having said that, it is almost certainly a mistake to label hotpot as culturally shallow. Hotpot, with its exact origins lost in history, has historically found itself not just enjoyed by Song dynasty peasants, as described in a cookbook by Lin Hong, but also presented on the highest tables.
The Qianlong Emperor once laid on a feast featuring 1,550 hotpots for the guests. The hotpot even made an appearance as a dish in some versions of the stupendous Manchu Han Imperial Feast.
Like all that makes up the Chinese culinary tapestry, hotpot is found all across China, and exhibits great variety. Each of China’s eight culinary traditions boasts its own version of hotpot, and each one reflects its own culinary philosophy and logic.
The Beijing hotpot, shuang yangrou, “scalded mutton” can only be done properly with the traditional copper pot, where a burning piece of charcoal is placed in the furnace inside the chimney of the pot, while the slices of mutton, cut thin as paper, swim around in the surrounding channel laced with medicinal herbs.
The soup of Sichuan mala, “numbing and spicy” hotpot and its nine-sectioned variant jiugongguo, is thick with Sichuan peppercorns and chilly oil, not only for the purpose of inducing that tingling tangling numbing sensation on the lips of the adventurous, but also to drive the “wetness” out of the body, as dictated by Chinese medicinal lore for those living in a climate as humid as Sichuan.
There is, of course, the Cantonese Binlo, in which a heavy emphasis on seafood typical of Cantonese cuisine is most enthusiastically expressed. The Yinyeung Wo – so very popular in Cantonese hotpot, composed of a pot with a Satay soup and a lighter soup separated by a metal partition in the pot, also reflects South East Asian influences.
And alas, who can possibly resist the rare delight of the Hainanese hotpot, featuring a soup made of tender chicken cooked in coconut juice and flesh.
The simmering broth of the hotpot denies entry to almost no food. From slices of mutton, beef, chicken, pork, to seafood such as oyster, shrimp, crab, fish, and scallops, the contents of the hotpot can go as wild as imagination allows. But it is not just about expensive meat.
The hotpot is a thoroughly democratised and egalitarian meal form, where even ordinary fishballs can themselves take the stage. There’s the classic golden-yellow fishball, the squid-ball, the beef-ball, the cheese-filled ball, the red and white lobster ball, and the green-outside orange-inside crab-roe ball.
Dip a piece of the crispy fish skin into the broth before one gazes upon the selection of vegetables at one’s disposal: bakchoy, spinach, baby Chinese cabbage, Chinese lettuce, corn, baby corn, button mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, golden needle mushrooms, and that crispy golden tofu-skin roll.
And if one is adventurous enough to brave the more exotic, there’s a wide selection of offal, ranging from pig intestines and ox tripe to well – chicken testicles. Fix like with like, gentlemen, as Chinese medicinal wisdom recommends.
But what is hotpot without its people? A simmering soup and a plate of hand-sliced fatty beef a hotpot does not make. It is the company, the sharing, the fishing of the goodies, and indeed, the fighting over who stole whose piece of whatever, that truly makes hotpot so very endearing to the hearts of people from all backgrounds and classes.
Indeed, the hotpot has historically served, and continues to serve, as a meal form that stretches the potential of small amounts of meat for the Chinese working class to its ultimate gastronomic limits. In fact, in the eyes of many, the hotpot restaurant still exudes an air of “give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses” in its down-to-earth philosophy.
While Mr. Chua is probably ill-advised to negate the existential and cultural value of hotpot, he does have a point when he says that “the need for great culinary masters will diminish”, if “the spread of hotpot trend” continues.
This presumably refers to the seemingly unchecked march of the hotpot restaurant industry, spearheaded by several gargantuan hotpot chains, such as Haidilao. Fuschia Dunlop, herself a converted Sichuan hotpot enthusiast, makes the same observation that the “hotpot represents the McDonaldisation of the Chinese restaurant industry”, and “encourages a tragically dumbed-down image of Sichuanese food”, for the meal-form, as Mr Chua already pointed out “encourages de-skilling and formulaic expansion.”
Perhaps in a sense, this reflects a rather sad phenomenon of the cultural Chinese not yet fully comprehending the beauty and potential of their culinary tradition. Hotpot is great, fun, and absolutely delicious. Let us celebrate it, along with the rest of the wonders of Chinese culinary heritage.