21st Century
The Future
World Travel
Books & Film
Original Fiction
Opinion & Lifestyle
Politics & Living
Film Space
Movies in depth
Kid's Books
Reviews & stories

The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: China Cooking

The Pot that is Hot
Darren Skelton

Have you ever asked yourself the question: What in fact has been the greatest discovery since the discovery of sliced bread? I have indeed asked myself this after various looseners (controversially, I once thought it might have been the Sony Walkman (the good old cassette one of course in the days when you had to fast forward the tape past songs you were non too keen on!)).

Well, the greatest thing since sliced bread is indeed the Hot pot (Pinyin: hu gu). Without a shadow of a doubt the greatest culinary discovery I chanced upon on following my arrival in Harbin, and something I am probably now addicted to (in some mild way at least).

I was a winter arrival so it happens, so for me the place to be taken to in those days (and my enduring image now etched in the brain) was the hot pot restaurant, with the bubbling broth and the steamed-up windows offsetting perfectly the bitter chill of the streets. So, when I think of Harbin and it’s food culture, I think of the hot pot restaurant, the good times and the cold. (For those Summer arrivals, the thinking would be more along the lines of the smell and the smoke, the taste and the bedlam (boisterous indeed) of the street Chuanr (you know those lamb kebab stick things, plus other things on sticks) vendors, barmy nights sitting on stools and relaxing (boozing) with the locals wearing their Harbin T-shirts (as in they take their top off to reveal that ubiquitous Hapi Beer Belly). One of my best-friends was a Summer arrival so our concept of what Harbin is differs greatly, which to be honest is one of the reasons I came here in the first place, the sharp contrast between life in the Winter and in the Summer.

The pot that is hot: The flavoured boiling broth of happiness whereby you lob in an assortment of sliced meats, sliced veggies and other bits of bobs ((fungus, wontons, seafood to name but a few), the selection can be aslong as a piece of string) as you choose, wait a wee-while till it is cooked through, remove dexterously with your chopsticks and dip into the dip of your choice (peanut sauce for sure). Knock back a few cold ones at the same time and you are onto a winner for everybody. One can and does argue the evening hot pot in some way replicates / relaces the evening down the pub back in blighty (gotta use the imagination a bit though).

What is there not too like about it? Exactly!
How many people have you met that say that don’t like to go for a hot pot? Exactly!

An outstanding eating concept no matter what style you plump for. And there are indeed a few styles to choose from, including SiChuanese (check a theasuarus to insert a new superlative for the adjective ‘spicy’) to Mongolian (overloaded on the lamb), traditional Beijing to Muslim influenced (a novel surprise indeed) .Traditional wood fired ones to gas powered to the the electric hot plates, they are all available. Individual pots or the large communal one.
After plodding the path on those cold winter days, when your eyeballs are so painfully cold, the thought of hitting the hot pot makes one go weak at the knees with stomach grumbling desire. For winter in Harbin and hot pot go together like football and meat pies, like strawberries and cream at Wimbledon, like a plughman’s lunch a pint of cider on a hot summer’s day in the beer garden of that pub you know down by the canal. It is that well matched up.

So, where to go in Harbin for a good one? There are spades of places to choose from in the city from pricey and posh to down right cheap and dirty. I’d say to you to pick up that phrasebook gathering dust by the rice cooker and learn some Chinese, then go ask a passerby for directions. If you are not that way inclined, ask a student for suggestions.
For me, I have a few haunts I dabble in on a more than regular basis, a couple to mention are ‘LaoSiChuan’ hot pot, located on YiManJie is worthy of the taxi ride (lovely big red pots of spiciness to dunk those shards of lamb into), as is ‘LaoDaoWai’ over on HuangHeJie near the second campus of HIT university (atmospheric rooms they have outback (really – out the back!)). The best of the best though is ‘9+9 Happiness’, it is the place to get yourself a good feed from people who seem to actually care you get a good feed. A small, up-market restaurant located in the Development Area of NanGang district, just off HongXiangLu it is, within throwing distance of Dragon Tower. Ask around when you get to this area and you’ll find it easily enough.

It is difficult for me to say ‘no’ to hot pot you see, so as my wife and I were strolling with the pushchair (‘stroller’for our friends across the pond), we stumbled upon this newly opened place that just looked (and more pertinently in the case of hot pots, smelt) so wonderfully inviting, we popped our heads tentatively in the door and were ushered to a pleasant little backroom / private room. Always, and I do mean always, we go for the private room for no other reason than avoiding those pesky smokers who light up in restaurants (Gulags should be re-established for those who do so, a bit of RTL (Re-Education Through Labour), never harmed anyone). Yep, I hate smokers who smoke in restaurants.

‘Plush’ was the word that sprang to the forefront of my mind, for it was indeed a posh looking, well-decorated room in both its decor and furniture. The ‘boss’ type black leather loafing chairs are quite the touch in comfort. More to the more, it had those lovely golden coloured individual hot-pot devices that I do much prefer. Fueled by parafin in this case too, a little intoxicating. A comprehensive menu is available, with pictures for those whose local lingo stretches no further than COLD beer and lamb. Service is spot on, sharp and subtle, also noteworthy for the speediness of service (so many places in town unfortunately have service staff that are akin to drugged up rhinos in nature reserves).
We order our set list of dishes we never stray from; a plate of lamb and a plate of beef (variety you see), a plate of carrots (pre pot snack), a plate of potatoes and sweet-potatoes, a bowl of cabbage, some shrimp paste balls, green noodles and a bit of fungus. Supplement it we do, everytime with a new dish from the menu (last time we had some particularly good fresh crab meat (not the cheap option this time as I was entertaining guests)) to keep things fresh and interesting. Cold beer they do have, (probably Baijiu too although we never touch it as it is the drink of the devil as you probably are aware of) in a good selection. All dishes are reasonably priced too, a group of 4 can eat heartily and have a few cold ones for less than 200 RMB.

My own personal recommendation to finish off your meal is to poach an egg in your pot which is now well-flavoured. The waitress might look at you in a funny way when you order a raw egg, but they will comply once they’ve decided upon a price for the egg.

As winter approaches, I once more look fondly to those dark nights of warmth.
© Darren Skelton October 2009

More lifestyle


© Hackwriters 1999-2009 all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibility - no liability accepted by or affiliates.