ADJUSTING their diet to the changing seasons is a way for Chinese people to preserve their health, as they value the concept that eating habits should be in harmony with nature. Winter solstice is the day with the shortest daytime and longest night of the year. From the Winter Solstice, the wintry days start, which are divided into nine sessions with each one covering a period of nine days. Starting from the Winter Solstice, Chinese people begin to shujiu (counting down the nine sessions of wintry days). It’s a tradition that has been passed down since ancient times. After that, as it turns warm, spring arrives.
Hotpot is a good choice for long-lasting chilly days, as people believe it can expel cold from the body and help keep them warm. Meanwhile, instant-boiled mutton is regarded as good nourishment for the organs, such as the heart, lungs, and stomach, thus becoming an essential dietary custom in winter.
Chinese believe that the food used in hotpot should also change with the passing of each of the nine wintry sessions. For the first nine days, instant-boiled mutton rather than beef or pork should be eaten, accompanied with seasonings including sesame paste, brine shrimp sauce, fermented bean curd, Chinese-leek flowers, and chili oil, along with crisp sesame cakes and noodles made from beans. Nowadays, one can still taste the veritable and steaming mutton hotpot at Beijing’s time-honored restaurants Dong Lai Shun and Ju Bao Yuan. Pheasant hotpot is recommended for the second nine-day winter session. Chickens are sliced and put into pickled cabbage soup; then the meat color instantly turns white, ready for eating. Marbled meat hotpot follows for the third nine-day session. The non-greasy meat has intramuscular fat and is easy to chew. It’s usually boiled with Longkou vermicelli from Shandong Province and pickled cabbage. Before eating, dip it into a mixture of Chinese-leek flowers, fermented bean curd, and chilli oil. Sha Guo Ju in Beijing’s Xicheng District still serves this centenary delicacy. Transparent, fresh, and tender whitebait, a small silver fish grown in Tianjin’s Baodi District is the ideal hotpot food for the fourth nine-day session; while for the fifth nine-day period, baby crabs are rare delicacies in hotpot.
In addition, another two types of hotpot are worth mentioning: chrysanthemum hotpot and meatball hotpot.
Chrysanthemum hotpot first appeared in the reign of Emperor Qianlong during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and later became the favorite of Empress Dowager Cixi in late Qing. It was originally popular on the Double Ninth Festival in the ninth month of the lunar calendar when the weather turns cool and chrysanthemums bloom luxuriantly. Ancient literati and nobility would sit around to have the hotpot with fancy foods such as fish fillet, prawn slices, and sea cucumber. While white chrysanthemums were divided into petals and replaced as a complete flower in the plate served as a side dish for diners. Two dim sums – golden thin noodles made from flours mixed with eggs and little dumplings were prepared to wish for good fortune and prosperity.
Meatball hotpot was typically served in winter in ancient Beijing’s spiced pork shops and roast duck restaurants where the unsold meat after a busy day was minced and made into meatballs, deep-fried in oil, and served with hotpot which could be delivered directly to diner’s house by waiters, like ordering take-out food today. Meatballs were put into a sizzling copper hotpot with charcoal underneath, filling the whole house with a delicious aroma and tasting even better, especially accompanied with sliced mutton, the inner tender leaves of Chinese cabbages, bean vermicelli, and frozen bean curd. Friends and relatives were all immersed in this cozy atmosphere.
There are two styles to eat hotpot in. One is using the big-belly copper pot with a thin steam boiler in the middle, which allows the charcoals beneath to burn and the soup to boil quickly; the other is using the shallow pot with a red copper body and brass pedestal. Sorghum liquor is used underneath to heat the pot slightly and to enable the varied flavors to intertwine with each other perfectly.
TONG CHANGYOU is a Beijing Cuisine master and a member of both China Cuisine Association and Beijing Cuisine Association.