It’s winter, and what’s better than a hotpot in winter. When in Beijing, the mutton hotpot 涮羊肉 is traditional hotpot of the capital city and has the same stature as mala hotpot in Chengdu.
What makes a good Beijing hotpot
According to tradition, the hotpot must have the following characteristics:
1. It must be a copper pot. And this is the most important rule of all.
2. The meat must be fresh meat hand-cut, never frozen.
3, No stock, just plain water with a couple of cut pieces of leeks.
4, Dipping sauce with only three ingredients : sesame sauce 芝麻酱, chives 韭菜 and preserved tofu 豆腐乳.
1/ 铜锅 Copper Hotpot
It has to start with a copper hotpot. This copper pot must be a big one, as it will be placed directly in the middle of the table for sharing. There is a mini version using one pot for each person, that is hygienic but not right. Hotpot is communal eating, individual pots lack the liveliness of people eating together.
You put a proper amount burning coal or charcoal beneath the pot, and there should not be a topping up of the coal in the midst of a meal. If you are given a pot that was used by a previous customer, the pot will flame out in the middle of your meal and your water will not boil. Too much, the heat is overwhelming and the water boils away too quickly.
Any responsible restaurant owner will make sure you have proper pot that would have enough fire that would last throughout your two-hour meal. The water will continue boiling without fail. The timing of the flame is as important as the copper pot.
2/ 羊肉 Mutton
In the past, there were no refrigerators in old Beijing, and there was no machinery, so therefore no frozen meat and everything was hand cut. Frozen meat will product bloody plates, guaranteed the chef at Old Door Post.
A sheep of 60 pounds will only produce around 3 pounds of edible parts – around 8 of 12 parts of a sheep can be eaten as ingredients of hotpot. These parts can either be fat, lean, and/or crisp. The amount of fat in mutton is too much for the average person to eat. So when a chef cuts the meat, he has to delicately balance the amount of fat with lean meat. Too thin, the meat will turn to leather in the hot soup. They have to be of a proper thickness to stand the boiling water.
These days, many offered both handout and machine cut choices of meat, and they don’t stop at mutton. Machine cut meat includes beef and lamb, but never pork. Almost all of these restaurants are Halal restaurant. I don’t like these machine cut meat. They are sliced too thinly and because you need to freeze the meat in order to slice them with the machine, all moisture of the meat are lost in the process.
3/ 锅底 Stock
Compared with the hot and spicy Sichuan-style hotpot, the stock used for the Beijing hotpot is only water, maybe with a stalk of leek and a slice of old ginger. The meat becomes the star and so the meat quality has to be exceptional. If it is not fresh or tender, it can be directly declared as a failure.
4/ 佐料 Condiments
The sauce is a standard sesame sauce. Not really tahini, it has a thicker texture. To that you add sesame oil, preserved tofu, vinegar, sugar and chives. And for the more adventurous, you add stinky preserved tofu. I would not recommend to add chilli or other crazy, strong tasting stuff as they will kill the delicate taste of the mutton.
Another specialty that is always served with the condiments is the candied garlic。 It is served as a palate cleanser. I am not sure if this cleanse the palate or just makes your palate go “WHAM!”.
How to enjoy it
There are not fixed method to enjoy the hotpot. Many of these hotpot restaurants have started to offer other dishes besides mutton. Beef, fish, chicken, etc the purists will squall at the thought of “contaminating” the pot with these foreign tastes.
There’s only one unbreakable rule of thumb – you do not double-dip what you have put in your mouth.
爆肚 Boiled Offals
Baodu (Chinese: 爆肚) is a halal tripe dish that is part of Beijing cuisine. It was first recorded in the Qing dynasty. There are many restaurants and street pedlars selling it in Beijing, such as Baodu Feng, a traditional and well-known restaurant established in 1881.
As a by-product of selling mutton, you get a lot of offals. The dish is made of fresh lamb tripe which is firstly cut into slices, blanched in boiling water rapidly and then removed. It is a stiff test of a cook’s ability, requiring rich experience and superb cooking skills to control the boiling time and the fire.
The boiled offals are eaten with the same condiments as the hotpot.
Where to eat it
A sampling of good shops
Old Beijing Hotpot 老北京丰泽居涮馆·铜锅炭火
53 Baofang Hutong, Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China 报房胡同53号
Tel : 010-85117802
Old Doorpost Hotpot 老门框爆肚(金宝街店)
Dong Lai Shun Restaurant 东来顺饭庄
Tel : 010 65139661
South Gate Hotpot 南门涮肉(东单店)
Tel : 010 85628899