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A winter's blast
2012-12-27
By Yao Minji

With Beijing shivering in temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius recently, the thought of sitting down to the capital's traditional hot pot must be an appealing prospect to its residents.

Hot pot - in Chinese huo guo (火锅), literally meaning "fire pot" - comes in various forms. These are characterized by the shape of the pot, the material it is made from and the broth, ingredients and dipping sauces favored.

For example, Sichuan hot pot is known for its very spicy and fragrant red soup base and a selection of at least a dozen dipping sauces.

Beijing hot pot often features a mild soup base and a selection of ingredients, including green onions and sweet garlic, which can be added to the dipping base of fermented tofu and peanut sauces.

As well as being known as huo guo, many people also call Beijing-style hot pot shuan yangrou (涮羊肉). Yangrou means lamb while shuan refers to the action of dipping the meat in the broth and sweeping it back and forth very quickly until it's done. The lamb is usually cut into such thin slices that it needs only a few waggles to be ready.

Authentic Beijing hot pot restaurants serve only reqi yangrou (热气羊肉), which refers to meat that has never been frozen. Many other hot pot restaurants serve defrosted meat.

Reqi yangrou can be cut into thinner slices than defrosted meat and doesn't have the strong odor that some people dislike.

Restaurants serving Beijing hot pot also resist the trend toward electric or gas-fired pots, often sunk into the table. Instead, they stick with traditional chimney-like, coal-burning contraptions.

Traditionally, a brass pot is used, but some Beijing hot pot restaurants choose porcelain pots so that the broth is slowly matured to its tastiest, while the meat doesn't get overcooked.

And while many modern hot pot outlets offer sectioned bowls so diners can sample several broths, traditional Beijing restaurants often have just a single stock.

A Beijing specialty is yang xiezi (羊蝎子) - lamb spine, literally meaning "lamb scorpion" because the spinal cord is thought to resemble the creature.

Authentic yang xiezi is made with the spine of lambs aged five to six months old and more than 30 kinds of Chinese herbs are added to the broth. It is mildly spicy and very tasty.

Meat close to the bone is considered the best in terms of the balance between lean meat and fat and texture.

Calcium in the rich soup base is easily absorbed by the body, many people believe, which they say improves vitality. Indeed, yang xiezi is considered a tonic for men with sexual health problems.

Other Beijing hot pot ingredients are typical huo guo fare; meaty favorites also including beef and meatballs, accompanied by piles of cabbage, spinach and other greens, mushrooms and tofu, all to be dipped in the bubbling broth.

While Shanghai escapes Beijing's bone-chilling temperatures, the city does endure its own bleak midwinter. So what better way to have your own winter's blast than by enjoying a leisurely hot pot with family or friends? Here are three Beijing-style spots in the city.

Dong Lai Shun 东来顺(Shimen No. 2 Road Branch)

Cuisine: Traditional Beijing-style hot pot

Ambience: Founded in 1903, and serving halal meat, Dong Lai Shun is one of Beijing's most famous hot pot chains. There are four branches in Shanghai. Befitting a brand steeped in history, the decor is characterized by traditional features such as large and elaborate light shades and dragons galore - whether depicted in relief swirling around door frames or painted on the pot itself. These vibrant details are offset by sober gray brickwork and plain tablecloths. Service was brisk and efficient on a weekday lunchtime when the restaurant was packed.

Who to invite: Friends, family, partners - basically anyone you want to enjoy a leisurely meal with.

Pros: It's a bustling place for a fun, sociable meal; chatting away while adding and removing tasty morsels from the bubbling broth and passing around other dishes and sauces.

Cons: To order you tick items from the menu sheet which is only in Chinese.

Recommended: Sliced lamb and beef - hot pot staples - are tender and tasty. The greens are fresh and there are plenty of things to add to the peanut sauce. Options include chili sauce, sesame sauce, red fermented tofu sauce (not to be mistaken for ketchup), chopped coriander and sweetened garlic. And if you've had your fill of hot pot, there are other Beijing specialties to try. Huo shao (火烧) - meaning "fire burning" - is a tasty wheaten roll with some meat inside, while sticky rice cake dessert lu da gun (驴打滚)- which translates as donkey rolling - is also recommended. It gets its wonderful name because the dough is shaped into long strips and rolled in soy flour, which people in the past thought resembled donkeys kicking their legs in the sand.

Don't order: Triangles of frozen tofu didn't look too promising. Did a dip in the hot pot improve matters? Not really.

Drinks: Plum juice

Cost: About 400 yuan for four

Address: 215 Shimen No. 2 Rd

Tel: 5228-7877

Old Beijing Lamb Spine (Henan Road S. Branch)老北京羊蝎子

Cuisine: Traditional Beijing-style hot pot

Ambience: This chain, with five branches in Shanghai, is one of very few places to offer lamb spine, which is more difficult to find in the south.

The Henan Road branch is the newest, opening this year, and features the same red decor as the others. Walls are covered in yellow-patterned red cloth while from the ceiling hang red Chinese knotting decorations. All these warm tones help banish the winter chill.

Who to invite: Family and friends - anyone who's not too fussy, as you'll be required to dig in with your hands to tackle the lamb spine.

Pros: For Chinese, hot pot is all about getting family and friends around for a cozy meal. And this place offers an ambience that is at once intimate and crowded, making it feel like Chinese New Year every day.

Cons: Waiting service can be slow when it's packed.

Recommended: Signature yang xiezi, the lamb spine pot, is a must try. It's slightly heavier than the typical ones in Beijing, but options are limited in Shanghai. Fried bun pieces are delicious, with crispy skins and soft inside. The Inner Mongolian wide rice noodles are great to add to the soup toward the end of the meal, when the broth has absorbed lots of meaty and vegetable goodness.

Cost: About 300 for four

Address: 4/F, 489 Henan Rd

Tel: 6335-6717, 6335-6727

Fresh Lamb Double Leaves Restaurant 热气羊肉双叶居酒家

Who to invite: Family and good friends. The place is really not fancy, so go with someone who enjoys great food in small eateries.

Pros: The owner's secret dipping sauce is especially tasty, with mystery ingredients added to the traditional peanut and fermented tofu base. The homemade spicy oil is also great for those who prefer something hot.

Cons: The menu is in Chinese only and the washroom is outside the restaurant. It doesn't have as many options as big restaurants, nor serve lunch, but is open to after midnight, so is a good late night supper spot.

Recommended: Reqi yangrou is included in the restaurant's title, and is the must-try dish. The lamb is cut into very thin slices, with lean and fat beautifully balanced. Homemade egg dumplings are another signature dish with smooth and fragrant egg-based skin.

Drinks: Beer is best with this hot pot.

Cost: About 300 yuan for four.

Address: 724 Yan'an Rd M.

Tel: 6253-2158

Cuisine: Traditional Beijing-style hot pot

Ambience: This is one of those tiny eateries known for great dishes rather than its ambiance. Open for around 10 years, it was originally on Maoming Road S., about a 15-minute walk away from its current spot, and often had long queues outside. It relocated to the bigger and better-fitted spot about two years ago, when the original location made way for a Metro station. It's still always packed but the owner and staff are pleasant and efficient.

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