Hotpot in the country’s melting potSichuan style hotpot has long reigned supreme in Kathmandu, but there’s more to it than spice alone.
A decade ago, restaurants serving hotpot in Kathmandu were far and few in between. The few spots that did serve hotpot only served a particular style—Tibetan hotpot, and the clientele was mainly foreigners. Fast forward to 2020, and it’s easy to see things have changed. Even though the style of hotpot is almost exclusively limited to Sichuan and Tibetan, here’s all you need to know before you dive into the world of hotpot.
The credit for Sichuan hotpot’s popularity in Kathmandu goes to the city’s Chinese restaurants, which have seen a steady increase over the past 10 years. Since most of the Chinese restaurants here serve Sichuan cuisine, it’s no surprise the hotpot style they serve is from the very same region. “Sichuan hotpot broth comes with copious amounts of Sichuan peppercorns, dried red chillis, and thick chilli oil,” said Norbu Tsering, owner/manager of Haopin Hotpot, a four-month old Sichuan cuisine restaurant in Naxal, Kathmandu. “It is all about the heat of the chilli and the tongue-numbing sensation courtesy of the Sichuan peppercorns swimming in the broth.” Norbu, who professes that he fell in love with Sichuan hotpot during his student years in Chengdu. The love later got him to open Haopin, one of Kathmandu’s newest Sichuan hotpot joints.
Fuschia Dunlop, a food writer specialising in Chinese cuisine and the first westerner to train as a chef at the highly-regarded Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, in a Financial Times article wrote the dish was “once a poor man’s dish, invented around the docks of the Yangtze river by labourers who would buy cheap offcuts of beef and boil them up in a potful of fat and chillies.”
But, over the years, Sichuan hotpot has evolved from its humble origins and the ingredients cooked in the broth are no longer limited to just cheap meat. “Today, in towns and cities of Sichuan, hotpot ingredients range from brains, intestines and aortas of pigs, to tripe of oxen and shrimps and potato,” said Norbu. “But many of the popular ingredients there are not what a typical Nepali palate would find appetising.”
Keeping that in mind, restaurants serving Sichuan hotpot in the city have kept ingredients within the realm of what Nepalis are accustomed to. “Our ingredients include spinach, thinly cut buff, chicken and sliced pork, ham, prawn, shrimp, bok choy, broccoli, mushrooms and seaweed,” said Norbu.
The key to making a great Sichuan hotpot is getting the foundation right—the broth. Traditionally, the only way to make Sichuan hotpot broth was to make it from scratch, a slow and laborious process. But with broth base packets easily available, it is no longer the case. “But packet broth base comes nothing close to one made from scratch,” said Norbu. “At Haopin, our Chinese chef makes the broth from scratch. We offer three different non-vegetarian broth bases—chicken, buff, pork. These are made by simmering meat and bones for several hours in herbs and spices. We also have mushroom and vegetable broth base for vegetarians.”
While in Sichuan, broth can either be ordered as spicy or non-spicy (there’s no in-between), restaurants serving hotpot in Kathmandu have had to change things slightly. “Many here might find the spicy version of Sichuan hotpot a bit too overwhelming. So, we decided to offer guests the option of ordering spicy, mildly spicy and non-spicy version. So far, the response has been great. Back in Sichuan, it’s very uncommon for people to drink the hotpot broth, but here most of our customers do drink it. This, I think, goes on to show that people really like our broth.”
Sichuan hotpot restaurants:
Man Tang Hong, Thamel, Kathmandu : 01-4224287
Haopin Hotpot, Naxal, Kathmandu: 9808064999
Tibetan hotpot, known as gyakok, is world’s apart from it’s Sichuan counterpart.
Unlike steel pots, which the majority of restaurants serving Sichuan hotpot use, Tibetan hotpot is served in a copper pot with a protruding chimney in the middle. “Even the broth is different,” said Purshottam Adhikari, Executive Chef of Hotel Tibet International. “Gyakok’s broth is mild and devoid of any fiery chillis and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns.”
Most restaurants that serve Tibetan hotpot in Kathmandu offer diners several broth options. “We have chicken and vegetable broth options. Chicken bones are simmered for over three hours to make the chicken broth, and we boil vegetables in the same way to make our vegetable broth,” said Adhikari.
But the key difference lies in how the ingredients are served. “Unlike Sichuan hotpot where diners cook meat and vegetables in the boiling broth, when it comes to Tibetan hotpot, restaurants here in Kathmandu serve pre-cooked meat and vegetables in the broth. To keep the broth warm, charcoals are put in the copper vessel’s chimney,” said Adhikari.
While the ingredients for Tibetan hotpot—which has similarities with Mongolian and Beijing styles—are similar to what’s commonly served in Sichuan hotpot restaurants in the country, the major difference is the side dishes. Many restaurants in the Capital serve a side dish of momos, Tibetan steamed buns, noodles and rice along with Tibetan hotpot.
Tibetan hotpot restaurants
Hotel Tibet International, Boudha, Kathmandu: 01-4488188
Hotel Utse, Thamel, Kathmandu: 01-4228952
Despite Norbu and Adhikari believing there weren’t any restaurants serving Cantonese hotpot, it would have been remiss not to mention it—it is one of the distinct hotpot styles in China and is popular worldover.
Perhaps one reason for it not being here in Nepal is because of the country’s lack of access to fresh seafood. Cantonese hotpot is a style especially popular in the southern region of Guangdong—its proximity to the South China Sea means the hotpot uses a lot of seafood as ingredients, such as live shrimp, oysters and squid or octopus. Seafood also plays its role as the base for the broth.