FOR many Chinese people, sizzling, aromatic food presented in an earthenware pot, bao zai cai (煲仔菜) - hot clay-pot dishes - epitomize the taste and scent of winter cuisine.
Bao zai cai, referring to ingredients cooked, mostly braised, and served hot in a clay pot, originated in Guangdong Province and is popular in south and east China.
"It's a distinctive style of dish, defined by its temperature," explains Kevin Ji, Chinese executive chef at Renaissance Shanghai Pudong Hotel.
"Some clay-pot dishes are served over fire and you will find the flavor changes gradually according to the heating time," Ji adds.
The charm of the dish rests in the heat helping release all the flavors of the ingredients, giving the flavor more layers and length, says Eiddy Wu, Chinese executive chef at Marriott Shanghai City Centre.
Pursuing a hot and rich taste is a fundamental rule chefs follow in winter when choosing ingredients.
Meat with intense flavor, such as beef and lamb, seafood with natural sweetness and umami flavor, such as scallops, spices and fragrances, represented by ginger, garlic, are popularly used in bao zai cai.
In addition to following culinary rules, chefs also pay much consideration to traditional Chinese medicine when devising recipes, says Peter Chuang, Chinese executive chef at Le Royal Meridien Shanghai.
For example, following TCM guidance, chefs choose "warm" foods like lamb, balanced by vegetables and greens with a "cold" nature, such as water chestnuts, Chuang explains.
"An ideal clay-pot dish cannot be created without a good pot, which helps retain the food's temperature and infuse it with aroma," says chef Wu from Marriott City Centre.
"We Chinese chefs usually use the term guo qi (锅气) - which literally means the smell of the clay pot - to describe the subtle relationship between food and pot."
Wu explains that the pot, if 100-percent clay, will release a distinctive scent during the heating process. Food inside the pot absorbs this and acquires a caramel-like flavor.
Clay-pot menus launched by Shanghai five-star hotels illustrate current trends. Presentation has gone back to classics, favoring simple-shaped traditional matt pots. However, the food they contain has become more creative, with multicultural character.
Chefs try to add some Sichuan and East Asian flavors to Cantonese pot through Sichuan and Thai chillies, fish sauce and a diversity of spices.
"The chillies give the pot a spicier flavor, while the spices and fragrances create more aftertaste," Wu says.
Here are some highlights of bao zai cai menus available this winter at Shanghai hotels.
Crab with noodles in spicy sauce (130 yuan/US$21 + 15%)
This dish features a Cantonese interpretation of spicy flavor. The noodles are cooked with butter crab (a sea crab known for its rich crab butter) in the sauce until they have absorbed all the crab and sauce flavors.
The spicy sauce is distinctive, described by Wu as a combination of Cantonese and Thai styles. Thai chillies, plus traditional Cantonese ingredients such as dried shrimp and fermented shrimp paste create a complex flavor - mild spicy, savory and umami.
Stewed prawns with konjac (128 yuan + 15%)
While the flavors of prawn and meat are traditionally seen as contradictory, chef Wu presents them harmoniously.
Prawns are stewed in pork bone stock with konjac - a noodle-like substance with a silky texture made from taro. The pork bones bring out not just the sweetness and umami taste of shrimp, but also give the whole flavor more roundness. When waiting staff open the pot cover, a strong aroma mingling onion, ginger and scallop greets diners.
Clay-pot rice (48 yuan + 15%)
This dish is favored by guo qi chefs for its simple main ingredient: rice.
The rice is simply steamed and heated with slices of assorted cured meat in the pot. Guo qi gives the rice a light golden color, an appealing caramel note and a slight crunchy texture. Cured meat complements the mild rice with a savory flavor.
When serving, waiters open the clay cover and top the rice with soy sauce to enhance its flavor.
Chef Wu offers a handy tip. After finishing the rice, ask waiting staff to cook a little of the burnt rice stuck to the bottom of the pot into pao fan - rice stewed in boiling water - which presents the rice and guo qi in a new way.
Where to order:
Man Ho Chinese Restaurant, Shanghai Marriott City Centre
This is a dish featuring complexity in fragrance, texture and flavor. When served, the diner is first greeted by an aroma of mutton, followed by a note of cinnamon, geranium and orange peel.
Mutton belly with a tender yet firm texture absorbs flavors from savory fermented bean curd and sweet and flowery rose liquor. Chef Chuang pairs the mutton with water chestnuts, fresh greens and mushrooms for rich textures and more freshness.
According to TCM, mutton is recommended as an ideal winter food as it warms the body and supplies qi (energy flow).
Where to order:
Ai Mei Chinese Restaurant, Le Royal Meridien Shanghai
Tel: 3318-9999 ext 7700
Address: 8/F, 789 Nanjing Rd
Braised beef brisket in radish soup (98 yuan + 15%)
The dish is accentuated by Thai fish sauce, which brings out the meaty flavor and aroma from the beef and gives the flavor more intensity. The heavy beef is paired with refreshing celery and crisp radish, presenting more textures and balanced flavor.
Where to order:
Wan Li Restaurant, Renaissance Shanghai Pudong Hotel
Tel: 3871-4888 ext 6612
Address: 2/F, 100 Changliu Rd, Pudong
Braised codfish with mushrooms in a clay pot (98 yuan + 15%)
Creamy yet firm codfish, silky tofu, tender pork plus mushrooms with meat-like texture create a diverse yet harmonious texture.
A rich and balanced flavor is presented, combining natural sweetness, tofu flavor, fatty tones and the distinctive umami flavor of the mushrooms.
To best preserve the heat, the food is wrapped in tinfoil before being placed in the pot.
Where to order:
China Court Chinese Restaurant, Sheraton Shanghai Pudong Hotel