Cover Photo: Suppa

From Kublai Khan's horsemen to robot servers, track the long history of this ubiquitous dish through the centuries

Across Asia, hotpot is having its moment in the limelight. In Chongqing, diners dip chunks of congealed duck blood into bubbling red Sichuan mala broth; in Beijing, robots at the Haidilao hotpot chain's flagship restaurant seamlessly deliver plates of thinly-sliced beef to your table; and in Singapore, diners can choose between enriching their broth by dunking a teddy bear made of butter, or undressing a Barbie doll swathed in a dress made of meat, in the style of Lady Gaga.

With its infinite customisability—requiring only the constants of raw morsels cooked family-style in a vat of broth—you would be forgiven for believing that hotpot was a relatively recent invention, perhaps ideated by some savvy Taiwanese restaurateur in the 1970s (as was the case with General Tso's chicken).

The humble hotpot, however, has a history that dates back hundreds of years, with roots that stretch back thousands more. Copper pots that were likely used to cook food in a manner similar to hotpot have been unearthed in northern China, dating back to the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD); although we can thank the Mongols, who invaded China in the 13th century and established the Yuan dynasty, for creating what we recognise today as hotpot.

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Legend has it that the Mongol horsemen would boil broth in their helmets over an open fire in which they would cook chunks of meat; another tells of an emperor who demanded a meal of lamb leg before a battle—in an effort to make the tight deadline, the emperor's cook chopped up the meat and boiled it in a pot, leading to the first instance of a hotpot meal.

That hotpot is a Mongolian invention is certainly plausible, given its ease of preparation and the important ability to provide a filling meal for a small huddle of tired warriors without much in the way of cooking skills—indeed, where hotpot used their helmets as a cooking implement, the shields of these horsemen were also used to sear meat, a technique that subsequently inspired a grilled mutton dish found in modern Hokkaido that is cooked using a convex metal plate, and simply named the Genghis Khan.

In the following centuries, dignitaries from the Ming and Qing dynasties [from the late 14th century to early 20th century] were known to indulge in the gastronomic pleasures of hotpot too, and as the cuisine migrated into southern China, it localised and adapted to the distinct palates and available ingredients of the respective regions.

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The most well-known among these regional varieties is undoubtedly that of Sichuan or Chongqing, instantly recognisable for its surface layer of red chilli peppers, and a broth that includes a cornucopia of spices like bay leaf, cloves, and cinnamon. Because of the location of the port of Chongqing at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, it regularly received shipments of livestock from the neighbouring provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan; while the choicest cuts of meat were sold to the upper and middle classes, the offal was often consumed by the working class, who preferred cooking it in a richly flavoured soup to mask the taste of the sub-standard organs. 

Chongqing also lays claim to hosting the first recorded hotpot restaurant, Ma Zheng Xing, which, according to folklore magazine Feng Tu Shi Zhi, was opened in the 1930s by two brothers who sampled the city's street hotpot and thereafter became addicted. Today, Chongqing is the self-styled hotpot capital of China, with residents regularly resorting to the adage that one in five restaurants in the city serves hotpot.

Today, the types of hotpot are as varied as the ingredients that go into its bubbling broth. Aside from the fiery Sichuan style, other prominent regional varieties include Yunnan and Guizhou, which tend towards more sour flavours; Guangdong, which favours seafood in a milder broth and a dipping sauce of spring onion, ginger, peanut oil and soy sauce; and Beijing, which retains the mutton so loved by the Mongols and uses a volcano-shaped copper pot over a coal-burning stove. And then there's the varieties of hotpot outside of China, which include Japan's shabu-shabu, Korean budae jjigae, Cambodia's yao hon, Vietnamese cù lao, and more.

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Above The robot servers at Haidilao's Beijing flagship mark a new chapter in the history of hotpot. (Source: BBC News)

For a dish that has constantly morphed throughout its history, hotpot has taken remarkably well to the dining habits of the 21st century—and no other brand is more representative of the future of hotpot than Haidilao. Founded by former factory worker Zhang Yong in Jiayang, Sichuan in 1994, the hotpot restaurant chain is by and large the most visible player in the global market, employing over 60,000 workers at 935 locations around the globe and turning over 11.7 billion yuan (US$1.8 billion) in 2020. In 2018, Haidilao held an initial public offering on the Hong Kong stock exchange, raising US$1 billion as a result. 

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Its success has been largely attributed to its no-holds-barred customer service—despite the long waiting times, customers are treated to complimentary drinks, snacks, board games, and even manicures while waiting in line. However, reports of a Vancouver outlet hosting up to 60 surveillance cameras to monitor customer behaviour have stoked fears of the chain's ties to the Chinese government's controversial and far-reaching social credit system.

Despite the murky origins of hotpot and its ever-changing present, there's no denying that this uniquely democratic form of social eating—where everybody is both the cook and the consumer—has never been more popular. Whether your next hotpot meal involves robot servers or meat-robed Barbie dolls, it will have something in common with those battle-hardened Mongols huddled on a windy steppe all those centuries ago—a primal pleasure derived from sharing a warm meal around a bubbling pot of hearty broth with like-minded people by your side.

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