Hot Pot – how an traditional way of eating has developed into a complete market

If there is one Chinese dish, or better: eating experience, that virtually all foreigners who have been to China enjoy, it is hot pot. The most traditional version is what Chinese refer to as shuan yangrou, literally ‘dipping mutton’. Eaters dip thinly sliced mutton in a boiling broth in the middle of the table, then dip it in a sauce with sesame paste as its base and other flavourings added on the basis of personal preference. While mutton is the main ingredient, various vegetables, bean curd, mushrooms, etc., can be dipped as well. This used to be winter favourite for the northern Chinese, as it is a way of eating that warms you up inside and outside. I hold dear memories of hot pot from my first winter in Beijing in 1975.

Modernisation

The consumption of hot pot increased with the growing spending power of Chinese consumers. This heightened interest caused a number of changes, adapting to the higher variation of likings of the patrons, also incorporating new technologies. Apart from mutton, beef and other types of meat were added. The charcoal as a source of heat was gradually changed to alcohol gel, which is considerably less smelly, and later electricity.

North versus South

The traditional northern hot pot also got influenced by the southern type. Southern Chinese have a different concept of hot pot. They throw about everything edible in a pot and fish it out using small metal nets. The Chongqing version uses a very spicy broth. Southern hot pot includes meat, but it is not the core ingredient. Most private restaurateurs who set up hot pot restaurants could not afford to stick to the shuan yangrou tradition and name there cuisine literally huoguo ‘hot pot’ (literally: ‘fire pot’). Hot pot gradually became an equivalent of a way of communal eating that required little effort. At home, you just placed a pan of broth on an induction plate, surrounded with plates with various raw ingredients. The same applied to hot pot restaurants, where the main activity in the kitchen was slicing meat and vegetables.

The Chongqing version with a spicy and a non-spicy half

Instant hot pot

A new development in the Chinese convenience food market is the appearance of self-heating noodles, congee, etc. Instant hot pots appeared soon afterwards. The photo shows a typical Chongqing hot pot with a spicy and non-spicy section by Qingxixi, launched in 2021. Qingxixi promotes the product as only containing zero fat or low fat ingredients.

A whole new market

Probably also aided by the renewed interest in home cooking caused by COVID-19, the hot pot rage has recently created an complete new market for packed hot pot ingredients. Hot pot chains like Haodilao started this by selling ready-to-use blocks of hot pot condiments. You simply melted it in hot water and you had an instant dipping broth. Meat processors followed suit by launching packed sliced mutton and beef. Fish followed soon. Chopped and sliced vegetables also appeared on the shelves of Chinese supermarkets. A recent study estimates the value of the market for hot pot meat alone at RMB 30 billion. The same study estimates the value of market for hot pot condiments at RMB 49 billion. A Chinese netizen posted the following photo of the various products he had purchased for a hot pot meal at his home with a few friends.

As you can see, it includes drinks and a cake for dessert. The only fresh ingredient is a plate of vegetables at the top of the photo.

So, is this a good development, all that packed food, or is it against the trend towards healthier eating? As far as the meat is concerned, I know from personal experience that the appearance of frozen pre-sliced mutton and beef felt as a liberation from slicing it yourself. Apart from being sliced/chopped and packed, these products have not been heavily processed. Fact is that ‘hot pot materials’ have become a sub-market of their own in China. I will keep you abreast of further developments on this page

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success

Fish paste – from offal to Chinese haute cuisine

Fish paste is a good example of a Chinese food ingredient that is widely used, but disproportionally little known. The best known product made from fish paste is the fish ball, shown in the picture, that is an indispensable part of the southern Chinese hot pot. However, it can be used in many more dishes of which I will introduce a few examples later in this post.

FishBalls

Fish paste used to be made at home by chopping a piece of fish by hand. For beginner, try to get a small size fish (approx. 600g) as it is easy to handle. Mackerel is popular material for fish paste. Choose one with some dots on the skin.

  • Remove head and all the internal organs. Clean the fish and pat dry. Slice both side of the fish, making sure that the flesh does not contain any bones;
  • Use a spoon to scrape the flesh, including the flesh that may still be on the bones; Chinese do not like to waste any food;
  • Prepare 1 tsp salt;
  • Sprinkle 2/3 tsp salt and dash of white pepper powder on the flesh;
  • Add water to the remaining 1/3 tsp salt;
  • Use the back of the knife to chop the flesh evenly; remove (pieces of) bones that you may spot in the flesh;
  • Add the salted water during the chopping process. A little bit at a time. You will find that the flesh will become sticky and make the chopping getting harder.

This gives a basic paste that can be placed in a suitable container to ferment for a number of days. The natural enzymes in the flesh will break down part of the protein to give the past a strong, almost pungent, fishy smell. As this picture shows, it is hardly recognisable as something made from fihs.

FishPaste

Fish paste like this can be prepared in larger quantity and frozen in portions big enough for one dish.

Dishes

For making fish balls, starch is added to the fish paste, after which you can make balls in a similar way as you are used to make meat balls for your soup.

The same starchy fish paste can be used to stuff pieces of bell pepper or bean curd, to prepare ‘stuffed pepper’ (see picture) or ‘stuffed bean curd’, famous dishes of Cantonese cuisine.

StuffedPepper

Instead of fish balls, you can make fish sausages, still using more or less the same stuff.

Industrial production

The industrial production of fish paste is big business. The current annual demand in China about 1 mln mt, with 200,000 mt produced domestically. This means that there is ample room for increase of production. Virtually all offal of the processing of any aquatic product can be used to make fish paste. In this respect, you might conclude that the production of fish paste in China is analogous to the production of pulverised chicken meat that is used to make products like chicken mcnuggets. Your first reaction when you learn about the details may be ‘yuck’, but it makes sense to reduce waste to a minimum. It can add valuable protein to any food.

The stages of the industrial process are

  • heading and gutting;
  • separating;
  • washing and rinsing;
  • refining;
  • dewatering;
  • mixing;
  • filling;
  • freezing;
  • packing;
  • storage and delivery.

This is industry has become big enough to make it worth the effort for machine makers to develop dedicated equipment for the production of fish paste.

The industrial recipes include a number of ingredients for protecting the paste against frost damage (e.g. sucrose, egg white, sorbitol), texturisers (calcium salts, hydrocolloids) or humectants (phosphates), and of course various flavours.

Ingredients

Apart from from fish, main additional ingredients of fish paste are:

  • (Modified) starch; fish meat contains 72-80% water. Starch or modified starch is needed to bind some of that water to improve the texture of the fish paste. An ingredient particularly mentioned in the Chinese literature is low cross-linking esterified starch.
  • Vegetable protein/egg white; this improves the elastic properties of fish paste.
  • Oil/fat; to improve the flavour and organoleptic properties.
  • Gelatine; to get smooth jelly-like past.
  • Sugars; Sugars have a number of effect on fish paste. One is that it removes some of the fishy flavour that is too strong for many Chinese. Insiders recommend sorbitol as the most effective in this category.

Innovation and haute cuisine

These new processes enable the development of a growing range new products like fish noodles, shrimp cake, fish beancurd, fish strips (look like noodles, but mainly consist of fish paste, unlike the fish noodles that are noodles flavoured with fish paste), fish cubes, fish ham (no pork used!), fish sausages, fish filling for dumplings, or fish aspic.

Boli brand fish strips come in two flavours: natural and spicy.

Boli

Nutritional value:

Item per 100 gr
Energy (kcal) 323.85
Hydrocarbons (gr) 57.00
Fat (gr) 2.75
Protein (gr) 16.75

Ingredients as indicated on the label:

Fish paste, starch, sugar, salt, pepper, potassium sorbate.

Fish aspic includes hydrolysis of the proteins using the enzyme neutral protease. As the picture shows, this ingredient extracted from fish can then presented again in the form of a fish. This is the ultimate goal of haute cuisine Chinese style: creating an improved form of the original raw material. A good place to taste it is Beijing’s Duyichu Restaurant.

FishAspic

Another interesting variety is mixing fish paste with small cubes of vegetables or mushrooms of various colours, shape that into a large sausage shape and wrap it in a sheet of fried beancurd. After boiling, you can serve slices of this sausage as a fancy fish paté.

I am sure that more ‘fishy’ products will appear in China in the near future and I will keep you abreast about those developments by updating this post.

Fish paste forum

Fish paste is becoming such an important ingredient, that this year a special International Forum will be organised around it in Xiamen (May 19 – 20, 2016). Topics discussed will include applications like surimi.

Eurasia Consult has recipes for all products mentioned in this blog and many more. We also have detailed information about the producers of fish paste.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.