You may have seen a lot of articles about Chinese hot pot and been impressed by those bright red and oily hot pot, which is filled with red chilli, from Sichuan and Chongqing area. You may have been to China or experienced hot pot in other countries, nevertheless, the most you ate are still spicy hot pot from Sichuan and Chongqing area.
Do Chinese love spicy taste that much? Not really. China is such a vast country with various customs and traditions, hence you could find rich and varied cuisines here, and so does the hot pot. The Sichuan hot pot is definitely popular, yet to some extent, it should attribute to the heavy beef tallow and the abundant spices that make the cheap meat much more delicious. In other words, what you really experience is not the flavour of meat and veg, but the taste of complicated combination of spices. Therefore, Sichuan hot pot could use cheaper food materials while also satisfy customers` tongues, which makes it a better commercial choice.
Therefore, this article will help you understand what you may see in Beijing, a very different hot pot which has much lighter taste – the instant-boiled mutton, also known as the Mongolian Fire Pot.
Why in Beijing？
The Inner Mongolia steppe is the main producing area of the high-quality lamb in China, and Chinese people inherited how to cook lamb from the northern nomadic people. To be more specific, during the long history of national integration of China, the Manchu learned a cooking method which was so called the instant-boiled mutton today from the Mongolian. With the establishment of the Qing Dynasty, Manchu emperor made Beijing the capital, and as a result, this new way of cooking mutton also known by the Han Chinese since then.
It is worth mentioning that instant-boiled mutton also has significantly changed during its developing history. Its eating and cooking method was brought by the Manchu ruler, popularized among the ruling class, hence it was obviously a sumptuous eating method at that time. In addition, even regardless of the eating method, consuming a lot of meat was also not affordable for ordinary people in China in that era. In the Qing dynasty, the dignitaries and the rich class who lived in Beijing learned the method of instant-boiled mutton from the royal household and began to enjoy the Mongolian Fire Pot in their daily lives.
After the establishment of the People`s Republic of China, instant-boiled mutton is now affordable for the majority of civilians, yet there are also some changes. Firstly, the Mongolian Fire Pot is no longer a kind of simple meal. Today, having instant-boiled mutton means a feast for a family, thus very few family will have it very frequently. Secondly, this eating method is not a course but a meal now. The lamb is the core ingredient, combining with veg and cereals (noodle, Shaobing, etc.) to provide enough nutrition and satisfaction.
Why the copper pot？
Lovers of instant-boiled mutton believe that iron pot will affect the water because of its offensive smell during boiling the water. It may not be a problem for other courses, yet instant-boiled mutton is an eating method which focuses on the fresh and original taste of the food materials, consequently making the disturb of iron unacceptable. To pursue the ultimate delicacy of lamb, those enthusiasts choose copper pot to solve the problem.
Why the charcoal？
Compared with the induction cooker and gas cooker which are usually used by Sichuan hot pot, a Beijing customer tend to have higher requirement on the heat of the pot. The center of the pot is a giant pipe which is used to contain charcoals to heat the water.
The form of the copper pot is not some kind of formalism or simply memorizing the history, on the contrary, it does have practical functions. Beijingers usually have hot pot in the late autumn and winter, which means that the heat brought by the charcoal could also warm people who sit around the table. In the cold winter of the north China, it is such a nice experience that feel how the freezing cold is dispelled by the burning charcoal. The joy of hot pot has already started even before people eat anything.
Besides, instant-boiled mutton is far, far distinct from boiling or braising. By this method, a plate of mutton will not be put in the boiling pot at a time, although this is quite common when eating Sichuan hot pot. On the contrary, customer will pick up a slice of mutton with chopsticks and put it in the boiling water, then remove it as soon as the mutton changes color, and the slice will not be released during the whole process. It is believed that only by this, the best flavour of lamb could be enjoyed.
The cooking method of instant-boiled mutton requires the water to maintain boiling, otherwise it will be difficult to know the lamb is ready or not. Charcoal is the only fuel which can meet such demand.
Unfortunately, it is no more because of the environmental protection policy of Beijing. Charcoal is almost fully banned in the central area of Beijing, and the hot pot is no exception. At present, even the best instant-boiled mutton restaurant choose induction cookers to meet the requirement of the environmental regulations.
With what base soup?
Different from Sichuan hot pot, the base soup of instant-boiled mutton is very simple – just water with slices of ginger, pieces of Welsh onion and grains of star anise. If someone prefers more abundant taste, dried shiitake mushroom, dried shrimps and Mongolia mushroom could also be added. But that is all, otherwise it will affect the original flavour of lamb.
With what sauce?
The Hui people in Beijing are the best specialists of cooking lamb and their traditional recipe of the sauce for instant-boiled mutton is still widely used. The sauce is mixed with sesame paste, vinegar, Chinese chive paste, fermented bean curd, soy sauce, minced coriander, chili oil and minced Chinese leeks. Some may add some shrimp paste and fish sauce. In some non-Halal restaurants, some people may add some wine to cover the strange odour of the lamb.
Specifically, sesame paste, the base of the instant-boiled mutton sauce, has two different forms which are raw sesame paste and toasted sesame paste. Some restaurants may add 20% peanut butter, mixing with the 80% sesame paste to make new taste.
In some lower level restaurants, the sauce for the lamb will be added chicken powder or beef powder to improve the flavour. However, this little trick is not welcomed by those eaters with higher standard.
This is how Beijingers mix the sauce for the instant-boiled mutton, nevertheless, sesame paste is not the only choice for eaters. Some experts only dip the lamb in some sauce with lighter taste than sesame paste, such as ramsons (Allium ursinum) paste or Mongolian onion (Allium mongolicum) paste. Furthermore, the lightest-taste sauce which can best serve the original taste of lamb, is the so called “salty soup”. First use pure water to boil the tail fat of the lamb till the aroma is fully released. Then served a small bowl of the soup with minced chives and salt, coriander is also a good choice if you like.
Attention, these special eating methods could only serve with the best lamb due to their light taste, otherwise the offensive odor of mutton will ruin your experience. If you choose some random restaurant on the street, sesame paste that could cover the mutton taint is still the best choice.
Cereal is always the best friend
Beijingers usually have sesame shaobing after they finish the hot pot, which is the most classic choice. However, how to cook the sesame shaobing that suits mutton is a very controversial topic. Some prefer the bigger Shaobing with strong sesame flavour, yet others argues that shaobing should be small and with lighter taste so that it would not cover the aroma of the lamb – their logic is quite direct: you would not like the feeling that the taste of sesame filled your mouth even though what you just finished was instant-boiled mutton.
Last but not least，the lamb.
The main feature of the Beijing instant-boiled mutton is the light-taste base soup, therefore, the quality of the lamb is the priority. Lamb with lower quality can`t meet the demand of those advanced eating method we mentioned before. Even served with the rich-taste sesame sauce, the experience will not be good enough. As a result, the quality of the lamb is the most important consideration for eaters, which means more expensive restaurants usually equal to better choice.
We have mentioned before that the instant-boiled mutton requires people to hold their meat with chopsticks and eat it immediately when the color changes, which means that put a lot of meat into the hot pot at a time is not only not tasty but also impolite. Nowadays, Beiingers pay more attention to health, so they will boil some vegetables and bean products like tofu after they are satisfied with lamb. But boiling vegetables first or with the lamb at the same time is not a wise choice, the base soup of the hot pot will only become tastier after filled with the aroma of the meat.
There are many methods to estimate the quality of lamb. You could do that with eyes even if you don`t believe your tongue. If there are lots of bubbles during boiling the lamb and the soup becomes muddy, it means that the meat was not professionally prepared – the blood was not fully drained during butchering and consequently, decreased the quality of the lamb. Moreover, lamb with sour taste or bitter flavour is definitely not good.
Lamb has a kind of special odour that some like it while others don`t, yet this not the only taste of it. In the best restaurant, the taint of the lamb is barely felt hence eaters could better enjoy the delicate taste of the meat. The mutton taint is related to the breed of the sheep, the fodder, the breeding method and so on. Generally speaking, only the best lamb has the slightest offensive odour.
So, where should you go?
Having said all of the above, if you are really eager to experience the best instant-boiled mutton in Beijing, I highly recommend you the Qingyi Caoyuan (Qingyi Grassland). Despite the charcoal is also not allowed, this restaurant could still serve eaters with high-grade lamb and tasty sauce.
This restaurant is very confident of its lamb. The base soup and the sauce here is relatively lighter and you could enjoy all those advanced eating method we talked about above. Besides, the roasted mutton here is also outstanding and the only used seasoning is salt, which means that you could experience the very original flavour of the meat without any disturbing. Qingyi Grassland also provide other dishes made by high-grade lamb such as mutton noodles and mutton baozi. None of these is affected by the mutton taint so that customers can fully enjoy the combination of the best lamb and the carbohydrate.
Qingyi Grassland is not a traditional brand, yet it has achieved a level that many time-honored brands don`t. Of course it is not the only worth visiting restaurant that serves lamb dishes, however, if you are really interested in the old style instant-boiled mutton, this is still my personal recommendation.