Now that you've acquired a taste for all things fiery thanks to the Beijinger's recent inaugural Hot & Spicy Fest, be sure to check out our ongoing chili related restaurant coverage and the latest issue of our Hot & Spicy themed magazine so that you can maintain the tantilizing burn. Speaking of our magazine, here is a feature from that spicy issue about the history of chilis in China.
You may not have heard, but there has been a momentous development in the world of instant food. Instant noodles have now encountered a seriously bulky competitor in the battle for China’s go-to mobile meals in the form of the self-heating hot pot, literally translated from Chinese as “convenient hot pot” (fangbian huoguo).
And really, it’s hard to imagine something more convenient than this. As the name suggests, these boxes of on-the-spot culinary perfection cook themselves without the crutch of an outside heating source. Instead, each package includes a flameless heat pack that you simply submerge in water à la an army MRE except here the battlegrounds are China’s train stations and internet cafés. Then there are the ingredients: a variation on the theme of meat, vegetables, tofu, and noodles that you would expect at any other hot pot occasion. With cooking times ranging from 5-15 minutes, these might not be quite as “instant” as their noodle relative, but waiting 15 minutes for hot pot without a flame in sight? This may be the height of science as we know it, folks.
In one steam-filled afternoon, we went ahead and tried the top five rated hot pots on TMall, much to the chagrin of our office and anyone else who didn’t want to leave work smelling like they had just spent a day in a Haidilao branded coworking space.
Finally, two pieces of advice before you get cooking: 1) setting these up for the first time can seem overwhelming, especially with the added obstacle of the Chinese language, but don’t worry, the diagrams are foolproof, and 2) it’s best to put the flavor base in the container first and be sure to cook for at least the directed time, if not longer.
Spicy Beef Natural Hot Pot by Zi Hai Guo (自嗨锅), RMB 34.8
The beauty of Zi Hai Guo’s Spicy Beef Natural Hotpot is that it delivers almost exactly what you’d expect out of a proper, spicy beef hot pot – a thick, Chongqing aroma, a good meat-to-vegetable ratio, and a container large enough to hold a decent reservoir of soup. Probably the most exciting ingredient provided is the pack of Sichuan peppercorns, labeled as chudian, or literally, “electric shock,” which means you’re in control of how mouth-numbing you want your meal to be.
Highlights: Sichuan peppercorns, 5-minute cooking time, and the chopsticks (they’re fancy enough to be reusable)
Rock Hot Pot by Wei Shu Wu (魏蜀吴), RMB 24.8
Slightly less spicy than Spicy Beef Natural, but still packing a punch, Wei Shu Wu’s Rock Hot Pot also employs a fairly standard hot pot flavor – and what’s wrong with that? What allows the Rock Hot Pot’s classic flavor to shine are the potato slices, which after absorbing the broth for 15 minutes may be the prized ingredient in its compact box. That latter point means that to its advantage, it’s more portable, but to its detriment, it’s actually a challenge to fit all of the ingredients in. Oh, and then there’s the entire chicken sausage – slice it yourself and add to the mix or eat it as it comes.
Highlights: Potato slices, compact size, chicken sausage
Chongqing Natural Hotpot by Mala Duo Na (麻辣多拿), RMB 24.8
The best starting point for discussing Ma La Duo Na’s Chongqing Natural Hotpot are its chicken wings. Juicy and most likely marinated before packaging, the wings are the signature feature of Chongqing Natural and arguably the winning attribute of any of the pots we tried. Largely responsible for the flavor of the wings is the pot’s base sauce – more grainy and earthy than the others, this one is also more numbing. The noodles, chewy but firm, are also on point.
Highlights: Chicken wings, the noodles, compact size
Time-Honored Hotpot by Youdian Huo (有点火), RMB 34.8
Youdian Huo’s Time-Honored Hotpot sports a classier, more serious look than the others, but it really needs to loosen up. The pot is mildly spicy, making it suitable for those who enjoy the experience of spice without the heat. While it doesn’t have much of a kick, some of its ingredients, like the corn and luncheon meat, make it more interesting (yay, Spam!). However, this one was a let-down since the overall flavor does not match the grandeur of the packaging. Tip: Cook this one for closer to 20 minutes.
Highlights: Large size, mild spiciness, the noodles
Spicy Tender Beef Hot Pot by Haidilao (海底捞), RMB 39.9
Finally, we come to the Spicy Tender Beef Hot Pot by the revered Haidilao hot pot chain heavyweight. In the same way that its restaurants are known for their extraordinary service, Haidilao’s Spicy Tender Beef Hot Pot’s presentation is superb. The pot’s packaging goes for a gold-standard look and is the most entertaining to watch cook thanks to its slick shape and significant steam. Unfortunately, the presentation seems to be the most notable feature of the hot pot chain’s product. The mildly spicy taste itself, while not poor, is nothing memorable and has got nothing on a trip to the real deal.
Highlights: Presentation, large size, mild spiciness
Photos: Uni You
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