The hot pot or 火锅 (literally fire pot) is as its name suggests – a pot kept simmering by fire and placed in the centre of the table for communal dining. Usually filled with stock, different raw ingredients – vegetables, mushrooms, meat, seafood, eggs, wanton (meat or seafood dumplings) - are then immersed in the broth to be cooked at the table. The cooked food is then dipped in a variety of sauces.
Some say the hot pot was created as early as during the Shang Dynasty (1766 BC – 1122 BC), which makes the dish about 4,000-years old or more. Others credit the dish to Mongolian warriors who found the dish simple to prepare because it really only required a pot, dating its origins back a little over 1,000 years. In any case, by the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), the hot pot had caught on big time in China and was particularly popular during winter.
As the dish spread across China and then Asia, regional variations emerged with different types of ingredients and broths introduced. The hot pot also earned different monikers – steamboat (in Singapore and Malaysia), shabu shabu and sukiyaki (in Japan), Thai suki (in Thailand) and lẩu or cù lao (in Vietnam). Whatever its name, it is comfort food at its simple best.
In Hot Soup the Chinese Way
Part of the fun of eating hot pot is the choice of ingredients, soups and sauces that make that one dish feel like a dozen or more. That is precisely what you get at Imperial Treasure Steamboat Restaurant at ION Orchard. There are 10 soup bases to choose from, ranging from the usual chicken, pork bone and spicy Sichuan soups to creative flavours like satay, seaweed and kelp, century egg and parsley, drunken chicken, and ginseng. In addition, there are 12 types of sauces you can dip your food into, including peanut sauce, green and red chillis, spring onions, plum sauce, chopped garlic, sesame paste, sambal chilli, and chicken rice chilli.
The selection of ingredients is comprehensive with some real gems like the USA sliced Kurobuta pork belly, and thinly-sliced marbled short rib beef. But the crème de la crème of the menu has to be the handmade fish, meat and prawn balls that are deliciously succulent.
When the hot pot spread to China, one particular variation arose whose popularity spread like, well, wild fire. The Chongqing hot pot or mala (numbingly spicy) hot pot is different from the hot pots offered in the rest of China primarily because of the spice it uses known as hua jiao (flower pepper) or Sichuan pepper in the soup. The newly-opened Hai Di Lao Hot Pot at Clarke Quay is part of the popular China chain which started in Sichuan and it serves up an authentic mala soup that is fiery as it is flavourful.
If you cannot take the heat, they also have non-spicy soups like black chicken, tomato, mushroom, and seafood. The seafood soup is probably the best value-for-money, packed full of prawns, mussels, clams, bamboo shoots and red dates. In the condiments department, they offer 15 types with some rather interesting ones like crisp soya beans, Korean-style chilli, peanut paste and sesame paste. Don’t miss their shrimp paste either which comes in a tube that is squeezed into your soup.
A plus about this restaurant is that it provides great service and a show. You can get a free manicure while you wait and the noodles are made fresh by the chef who will come around the restaurant to show off his “pulling” skills.
Sumptuous Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu - The Japanese Version
For the Japanese take on the hot pot, Suki-Ya at Tampines Mall has an eat-all-you-can menu featuring Japanese-style soup bases like spicy miso soup, sukiyaki , and shabu shabu to cook your free flow of beef, pork, chicken and vegetables. Both sukiyaki and shabu shabu are nabemono or Japanese hot pots. Shabu shabu (so named because of the swishing sound the food makes when it is being cooked in the pot) is more savoury, less sweet and more like Chinese hot pot than sukiyaki which usually cooks the ingredients in a skillet rather than a pot.
Tsukada Nojo at Plaza Singapura is not technically a hot pot place but its signature dish served in a hot pot deserves special mention. This restaurant prides itself in providing the very best organically-raised chicken called Jitokko from their very own farm in Miyazaki in southern Kyushu. The dish called Bijin Nabe (美人锅) is a hot pot of this special chicken in collagen-rich soup with prawns, vegetables and mushrooms. The collagen, which is made from the chicken bones boiled for eight hours to extract the collagen, comes in pudding-like chunks which slowly melt into the soup as the pot continues to heat. Collagen is naturally-occurring protein found in connective tissues of animals and is reputedly good for rejuvenating ageing skin. So, a meal here is like a beauty treatment cum gourmet fest all in all.
Seoul Food in a Pot – The Korean Version
At Seoul Garden, you get Korean-style steamboat and barbecue, a two-in-one deal that is made harder to resist by the fact that it is a buffet.
To cater to an increasing appetite for hot pots, they started Seoul Garden Hot Pot which has an outlet at IMM. Here, the hot pot dishes come in single servings with the stew already cooked. The Mandu Hotpot is a chicken dumpling kimchi soup with sweet potato noodles, vegetables, assorted mushrooms and chunks of kimchi (spicy fermented vegetables). Yukgaejang Hotpot is a braised beef soup that has beef marinated in the slightly sweet bulgogi sauce. The beauty of these hot pot dishes is that the soups keep warm till the very last slurp.
Take Time for Thai Hot Pot
Bali Thai, which serves both Indonesian and Thai dishes has a hot pot dish that will pique the interest of those who like their soups spicy and tart - Tom Yum Hot Pot set with a choice of chicken, beef or seafood
Do You Fondue?
No mention of the hot pot is complete without talking about the fondue, which is a much later European version of dunking food (pieces of bread, meat and fruit) into a hot pot of liquid to cook it (usually cheese). This late 19 th century dish has other variations like the chocolate fondue where pieces of fruit and pastry are dunked into a hot pot of chocolate.
Häagen-Dazs at Junction 8 has a fondue set that lets you dip balls of ice-cream, cookies, biscuits, and fruit into a divinely smooth pot of hot chocolate sauce.
The next time you want some communal dining, gather round a hot pot. There are, after all, so many types to choose from.
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