Some historians say hotpot originated as early as the Three Kingdoms (220-280) when people used bronze cauldrons to cook. Others claim that hotpot was already popular in the Han Dynasty (206-220BC), when it was common to cook food in dou, another type of bronze vessel.
What’s certain is that by the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), restaurants were already selling hotpot. The dish – cooking meat, vegetables and noodles in bubbling broth – had became part of the royal menu by the 16th century, as legends have it that Emperor Qianlong, probably China’s most famous gourmand, was a fan.
More recently, Chua Lam, an esteemed food critic from Hong Kong, found himself in hot water after making a controversial comment on the popular dish. Asked by a TV host which of the dishes in Chinese cuisine he would like to see forever disappear, Chua picked hotpot.
“Hotpot is one of the most uncivilised ways of cooking. All you do is to cut things up and then throw them in a pot. What’s so special about that? If this trend continues, nobody needs a chef anymore,” Chua explained.
It is not the first time Chua has expressed disdain for the dish. Back in 2014, netizens asked the food critic on weibo if he had a favourite hotpot restaurant. He responded: “I don’t like [hotpot]. It requires no technique to speak of.”
His more recent comments soon stirred up discussion online, with many eager to defend the dish, touting its culinary value.
“Beijing uses clear broth in a copper pot over a charcoal fire. People in Chongqing divide their hotpot into squares [of broth]. Meanwhile, in Dongbei, people like to put pickled vegetables in the broth. That goes to show just how deep the hotpot culture is,” one netizen argued.
Another concurred: “To say hotpot requires no technique is ignorance at its worst. The reason different restaurants have a different soup base is because how much you use each ingredient is going to affect the taste of the broth. Moreover, heat, one of the most important elements to cooking, also plays a big role: how long do you cook each ingredient in the broth is a science.”
Hotpot aficionados also argue that the dish perfectly showcases how each Chinese region adapts it to its own needs. “Different regions have their own hotpot style. Through hotpot, one can get a taste of all the different culinary cultures of the country,” Xiao Xinhao, a food scholar, told Hong Kong’s Apple Daily.
Chua’s dismissive assessment of hotpot was widely disagreed with. Far less controversial was the answer given to the same question by Chen Xiaoqing, a documentary maker behind the vastly popular TV food show A Bite of China.
When the talkshow host posed that same question to Chen – right after Chua’s broadside – he side-stepped the query and avoided alienating any region. “I would like to see canteen food destroyed,” was his more diplomatic response.
Hotpot is one of the culinary delicacies in our new book China in 50 Dishes. Click here to download and read.
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