Hong Kong: A Taste of Hot Pot and Century Egg
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
The very first meal that I ever shared with friends in Hong Kong was a hot pot and to this day it has a special place in my heart. If dim sum offers the true taste of Hong Kong then hot pot cannot be very far behind. Like dim sum, hot pot is all about dining with friends, proving that good food and good company makes a great meal. Food in Hong Kong is all about the whole dining experience with conversation and good cuisine making a very happy partnership. A good hot pot is never rushed allowing friends and relatives plenty of time to catch up on the latest news and events and an opportunity to relax from the stresses of the busy Hong Kong streets. It is a real communal meal with something for everyone at the table and a way of dining that has become extremely popular with both Asian and Western diners alike.
A hot pot is traditionally a heated clay or brass pot filled with a flavoured broth, which is heated over a charcoal fire. In its early origins Mongolian tribesmen would spear pieces of meat and add them to a boiling pot on top of an open fire. From this simple beginning hot pot has evolved until today when it is common to see thin slices of meat, fish and shellfish along with vegetables, mushrooms and bean curd being added to the bubbling mix. When cooked each diner will take his chosen item from the pot using chopsticks and dip this in soy sauce or chilli oil to help bring out the flavours.
Nowadays the pot may be brass, earthenware or even stainless steel and it may be heated by an electric heater or a gas or alcohol burner but the principal remains the same. Diners can choose their desired broth and also the ingredients they want to place in the pot. Plates of raw meat and vegetables will be delivered to the table in neat bite-sized pieces. Each diner simply selects his items and places them in the pot until they are cooked to his or her liking.
The items are small and cook quickly so this is a healthy and popular way to dine.
Hot pot has been enjoyed for more than more than a thousand years and has its early origins in Northern China where the cold harsh winters and biting wind often forced the people inside to escape from the worst of the weather. Travelling Mongol nomads from the north added beef and mutton the pot before taking it on their travels to the south. The Cantonese rapidly embraced the delights of hot pot creating their own variation by adding the local seafood. A hot pot was seen as an inexpensive way to lift the spirits as well as warm the body. Traditionally it is regarded as a winter dish but in Hong Kong it is eaten all year round and it is not uncommon to see small families gathered round a table in the middle of summer eating hot pot in the comfort of an air-conditioned apartment.
There are essentially three basic styles of hot pot although there are many variations and derivatives of these that can be found right across Asia. The main style of hot pot from which all the others are derived is the Mongolian hot pot. Today this style commonly uses thinly sliced raw mutton along with Chinese cabbage, bean curd and delicious sesame pancakes in a mushroom and dried shrimp broth. The mutton is cooked in a copper pot with a chimney in the centre, using burning charcoal to keep the stock around it gently simmering.
The most popular style is the Sichuan hot pot, which is a spicy variation originally a favourite of the poor and lower classes. Like all Sichuan cuisine it is very spicy with the broth being flavoured with chilli peppers, sugar and wine. The ingredients used are quite varied but you will commonly see sliced beef, chicken or duck along with spring onions, bean sprouts and mushrooms. Some variants even use offal such as heart, kidney, tripe or even pigs brains as a cheap hearty alternative that adds a rich flavour to the pot. It is also quite common to see a split hot pot used in the Sichuan style with one side flavoured by hot chilli pepper oil and the other using a milder chicken broth for the more sensitive pallet. The pot is sometimes made in the shape of a yin and yang symbol emphasising the contrast but complimentary nature of the two sides. You will normally find chilli dips accompanying the hot pot to help numb your taste buds. Generally Sichuan style hot pot is very hot although it does vary so beware. Sometimes the broth has the ability to strip paint on its own so it always pays to be a little bit cautious with that first bite.
If you prefer your hot pot to be milder then the Cantonese version is perhaps the best choice you can make. This is a sweeter adaptation of the Mongolian hot pot using the seafood such as shrimps, crab, oysters or thinly sliced fish fillets. The seafood is combined with lettuce, Chinese cabbage, spinach, turnip, mushrooms and bean curd in a dried shrimp or chicken based broth. In Hong Kong this is a firm favourite with some people dipping their ingredients one piece at a time into the broth with others throwing it all in at once to create a hearty soup. I think I prefer the one piece at a time approach as at least you can cook your meat or vegetables to perfection without losing any of the tenderness. You will quite often see a Cantonese hot pot served with a dip of soy sauce and fresh raw egg. The idea is that the egg and soy mixture cools the food and provides a thin layer to protect your mouth from the heat of what you are about to consume.
Other variations include the Manchurian hot pot, which adds plenty of Chinese sauerkraut to the broth giving a slightly sour taste to the stew. An unusual variant is the chrysanthemum hot pot which is made with pork liver and kidney in a dried shrimp broth with a few chrysanthemum leaves added at the end. The chrysanthemum leaves are thought to be symbolic as in the past it was deemed the best time for hot pot was when these flowers bloomed. There are even Thai hot pots such as the Coca hot pot which is a firm favourite of Bangkok Coca restaurants. It is an unusual mix of hot, sour and sweet using a sweet stock made from chicken and turnips. To this beef, pork, chicken, crab, shrimp or scallops are commonly added. The famous Swiss cheese fondue familiar to the West is often regarded as a form of hot pot. It uses the same sort of pot and involves diners sharing and dipping in a similar manner with the broth in this instance replaced by melted cheese.
Da been lo is the common Cantonese name for hot pot, which literally translate means ‘to hit the side of the pot’. The round shape of the hot pot is thought to have special significance for the Chinese as it is thought to symbol togetherness and family unity. In Japanese, hot pot is called shabu-shabu, which refers to the sound made by the motion of chopsticks swishing a piece of meat about in the broth.
Hot pot is extremely popular in Hong Kong and despite various concerns about food poisoning due to undercooked food the chances are very slim. Most restaurants provide chopsticks for serving and separate ones for eating thereby reducing the risk of cross contamination. The pots and the broth inside are normally kept simmering so any bacteria on the food or chopsticks are eliminated pretty swiftly. The good thing is that you get to see the meat firsthand before it is cooked so anything that isn’t fresh is easily noticeable. I have eaten hot pot many times and have never experienced any problems. Just be cautious as with all aspects of dining, wherever you choose to eat and you will have a great meal and a great culinary experience.
Generally hot pot restaurants in Hong Kong are very busy and noisy and a place for conversation as much as for the food. In the same manner as a dim sum restaurant you will normally be presented with a printed menu detailing the various meats, fish, vegetables and accompaniments available. Simply mark on the menu the broth base you would like along with the ingredients to create your hot pot and you are away. In a few moments your broth along with your burner will be placed on your table along with the ingredients you chose. Once the broth is bubbling then you can start adding slices of meat or vegetables to the pot. It is relatively easy picking up the ingredients with your chopsticks and placing them in the pot but more of an adventure when they are cooked when you have to chase round trying to catch them. At times like these it becomes a lucky dip but then I guess that is half the fun. Remember to dip your meat in soy sauce or chilli if you prefer a little spice and just enjoy the experience. The meal is not rushed and people eat and talk at their own pace so a meal can be a lengthy process.
One of my earliest experiences of hot pot was in a large restaurant in the centre of Causeway Bay. It is sadly long gone but for me it was notable because it provided me with my first taste of that Cantonese favourite century egg. Most hot pot restaurants provide appetisers of peanuts or sesame toast but this one place had slices of this truly inedible looking black egg sitting on a white dish on the table. I had often seen the eggs displayed prominently on market stalls but to be honest I never had the nerve to buy one and try it. They look dark and menacing and really anything but appetising and despite trying literally everything on my travels this was the one I had avoided the longest.
The century egg or pei daan in Cantonese is also commonly known as a preserved egg or a thousand year old egg. Luckily it is not a thousand years old and merely looks like it has been excavated from an old Chinese tomb. It is in fact a preserved duck egg, which has been buried in a shallow box for 100 days in a mixture of ash, tea, salt, clay and lime. The egg is dark blue almost black in colour with the texture of a soft-boiled egg due to the petrifying effect of the lime. Once cut into quarters you can clearly see that the white is gelatinous like the jelly from a pork pie but dark brown in colour and transparent like cola. The yolk is creamy showing pale and dark green patterns that look anything but appealing. It has a strong and distinct smell like a very strong cheese.
I was extremely wary when it came to tasting these bad boys but I can honestly say I was pleasantly surprised. I had already scouted the restaurant to find the location of the toilets and had a beer at hand so it was a great relief when I didn’t need either. Don’t get me wrong they are not a great delicacy that I would search high and low to experience again but as looks go these were deceiving. The white or cola casing was virtually tasteless and quite edible while the yolk was pleasantly creamy with a cheesy and almost fishy aftertaste. I had expected a rich acrid, nausea inducing taste but what I got was quite palatable and not as bad as I had feared.
These are definitely worth trying for curiosity value only and you will find them throughout Hong Kong. Most hot pot restaurants have them as do most congee restaurants as it is a popular congee topping. You may also see salted eggs or ham daan advertised these are another type of preserved egg but this time soaked in brine for about 40 days. They are commonly seen in shops packed in earth and are easily recognisable by their hard orange yolks. Unlike the thousand-year-old eggs these must be cooked before eating.
Whether you fancy trying a thousand year old egg or the whole hot pot experience I encourage you to take a chance. Hot pot is a meal to eat with friends and not really a meal to have on your own or even as a couple. I love the unhurried nature of the meal and with good conversation there really is no better way to relax.