Is it wrong that I define my seasons more by food than the colour of leaves on trees? If summer’s all about salads, ice cream sundaes and sizzling barbeques in the sun, then the arrival of autumn makes my mouth water over the prospect of hearty stews, heart-warming curries and now I live in Hong Kong, hotpot.
In England, hotpot is normally of the Lancashire kind, filled with day-long baked mutton, root vegetables and lashings of gravy. But any Brit wandering into a Chinese hotpot restaurant expecting more of the same will be in for a shock!
As with most of the best Chinese eating experiences, having a hotpot is best done as a communal experience. As many people as possible gathered round a steaming pot of stock into which goes… nearly any type of food you can think of! Seriously, we aren’t fussy. Meat, fish, seafood, veggies, dumplings, tofu, noodles… if it can be cooked, chuck it in! And if you aren’t too sure… well, chuck it in anyway!
Everything comes dished up to you raw and it’s down to you to do the cooking by submerging the items in the boiling soup base. Consequently, all the meat is sliced see-through thin and the fattier, the better to keep it as tender as possible. [As someone who’s lived my life picking all traces of fat off my meat, this came as a bit of a shock but trust me, it cooks beautifully and doesn’t go rubbery or chewy as you might expect.] You also get a choice of stock, from the bland to the spicy, and different sets of chopsticks for handling raw and cooked food (although I’m terrible at remembering to do this as I’m in such a hurry to get the grub in my gob). No need to painstakingly let the waiter know your dietary requirements or your life-long hatred of fungi – if you don’t want it, don’t cook it. Simple as that.
The most traditional hotpot restaurant I’ve been to is Little Sheep, a franchise so huge that you can even buy their own branded hotpot stock from supermarkets. Here, the huge metal pot is sunk into the middle of the table with a Lazy Susan round it, so everyone mucks in, cooking bits either for themselves or leaving them to stew for communal consumption! It all gets a bit hot and steamy so they even put covers over your chairs (and coats hanging on the back of them) to prevent you getting too much hotpot vapour on your stuff!
This place has a banquet feel and is definitely one for parties or family gatherings. As a result, there were masses of beautifully-presented items to choose from – my favourites were the huge variety of different meatballs and these amazing tofu spheres that started out crispy (like latticed batter) but once submerged, collapsed in on themselves to become a gooey delicious mess. The best thing is that even though you only have one pot between everyone, it’s divided into two sections so you can get two different soups going on – especially useful if you’ve got some spice fiends and others that spontaneously combust on the sight of the stuff. We seemed to have endless platters of food arriving and in the end, it only came to about $100 each. The meat if top quality and apparently, staff sometimes answer the phone ‘Baaa! I’m a little sheep!’ What’s not to love?
Little Sheep is styled after Mongolian hotpots, but Japanese hotpots are increasingly gaining in popularity here. Also known as shabu-shabu (Japanese for ‘swish swish’ to describe the sound of stirring stuff in the pot) or suriyaki, the two restaurants I’ve tried offered buffets rather than set platters (see above), with the hotpot a saucepan brewing on an electric hob in the centre of your table where you control the heat (see below), rather than the huge metal vat boiling away at Little Sheep. Given the cost of all-you-can-eat, plus side platters of fatty beef/pork, the choice and quality of ingredients is a little lower. Cocktail sausages, fish balls, leafy veggies and different kinds of bean curd, mushrooms and noodles are the main players. You also get a sauce bar (see above), where you fill a dish with whatever condiments you choose, most notably chilli, garlic and spring onions (and you can never go wrong with extra soya, right?) to dip your food in after cooking. Although I saw one person chucking their dishes of sauce into their hotpot, so anything goes. There is also a time limit, normally of an hour at lunch, 90 minutes at dinner.
At Mou Mou Club, we opted for the spicy soup base, which was really moreish, even if it did boast a bit of a kick! Their beef was an absolute delight as well – really flavoursome and tender – and it came piled high! The price varies depending on the quality of meat you pick and whether you’re content to stick to just one platter or want the option of getting more. Including a soft drink, it came to about $100 and there’s also all-you-can-eat ice-cream, including lots of toppings destined to take you back to your childhood. And everyone knows that rainbow sprinkles make everything better. Alas, no-one saying ‘Moo! I’m a cow!’ here though.
Over at Gyu Yin, it was much of the same. Their buffet was a bit better stocked but there was a bit less beef for your buck and our choice of soup base was bland. But the main draw of this joint (also coming in at around $100) was an unlimited supply of Häagen-Daazs ice-cream in four different flavours, which change regularly. My dining companion and I had absolutely no compunction in cutting short our stewing time to devote ourselves to dessert – and wielding that ice-cream scoop was a bit of a work-out, let me tell you!
My favourite, however, is HIPOT (which was the banner photo). This seems to be a fusion of all styles of hotpot (bar Lancashire) with a HK twist – there’s the Japanese array of dipping sauces yet also a more eclectic range of soups and ingredients. I absolutely adore their satay soup, super-tasty, just that little bit spicy and with that unique satay taste. Perfect for those like me who want a bit of a kick without having our socks blown off, it’s wonderfully moreish and the flavour really seeps into your food. But there is a stock for every taste, from the more aromatic mild coriander to the super-spicy ‘devil’ brew!
You can either opt for a set platter or individual dishes, ordering them like dim-sum. I had a set for lunch (a bowl of veg, a bowl of your choice of noodle and a bowl of ‘other’) and added a plate of beef extra, which still came to a quite ridiculously-cheap $58. The beef was surprisingly good, given its cost (although I could have done with another plate) and I really loved the dumplings. The yellow-and-white striped one was cheesy and creamy and generally lush. There was also a yummy veggie one and although the prawn/shrimp/crab ones looked a little dubious, they tasted lovely and the sweetness of the meat really came through. I gave the dry and unloved looking seafood a miss though, especially as it tends to overcook and get tough easily (especially if you forget about and later discover a rubbery lump at the bottom of your pan).
I also went a la carte at dinner and even with twenty or so dishes headed at our party of four, it came to just under $100 each, including an unlimited flow of soft drinks and juices of your choice. I’d highly recommend their range of bean curd (the wrinkly tofu skin becomes chewy milky deliciousness upon getting the hotpot treatment), the fish balls, the prawn dumplings and the smaller slices of fresh beef. Sorry I can’t be more exact but here we come to HIPOT’s downfall – the menu is only in Chinese! So I’m not sure if we ordered the wrong thing, but that night, the fatty beef was really tough and grisly whereas the ‘fresh’ beef was much nicer.
The real bonus about HIPOT is that you all get individual saucepans, which is great if you have a vegetarian in your midst or fancy trying a few different stocks. For those hygiene-inclined, it also means you are less likely to be sharing your germs with the entire table! It’s great for mulling over, having a chat and getting gradually full as you go, although you might initially be a bit pushed for space on your table!
[In general, I also can’t get enough of having udon noodles in hotpot. There’s just something about their fat, chewy, slippery unctuousness that tastes extraordinary in hotpot.]
So Hong Kong hotpots are cheap, tasty, filling and fun. With autumn well and truly here, there’s only question – what are you waiting for?!