Within China, there are dozens of regional varieties of hotpot to enjoy, many of which spread from their original locations to other areas in the country. One type that is common around where I live, in northern China, is “hot pot chicken” (火锅鸡), which originates in Cangzhou, Hebei Province.
According to various Chinese online sources, “in Cangzhou you can’t go more than a few steps down the street without running into a hotpot chicken restaurant” (“沧州的大街小巷里，每走几步都有一家火锅鸡店”).
Why is it called “hotpot chicken” (火锅鸡) instead of “chicken hotpot”? In this case, the characters are reversed from the way that normal varieties of hotpot are referred to. For example, with “Chongqing hotpot” or “beef hotpot,” the Chinese and English word order is the same: 重庆 (‘Chongqing’) 火锅 (‘hotpot’) or 牛肉 (‘beef’) 火锅 (‘hotpot’). In such cases, the name essentially defines what style of hotpot it is.
“Hotpot chicken” is actually the other way around. Instead of 鸡肉 (‘chicken’) 火锅 (‘hotpot’), it’s 火锅 (‘hotpot’) 鸡 (‘chicken’). In this case, the chicken itself is the dish; spices are added to the meat – as opposed to the broth -, and then put it into the pot. In short, hotpot chicken is basically a ‘chicken dish’ (served via hotpot) as opposed to ‘hotpot’ (served with chicken).
In Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, as well as other cities in the area, it’s very common to see “Authentic Cangzhou Hot Pot Chicken” restaurants. However, we have a friend from Cangzhou who actually sent us a bag of the ‘real stuff’ from one of the best restaurants there. It was delivered by a family member who was driving from Cangzhou to Shijiazhuang.
It came just in time for yet another going-away dinner on the eve of moving out of China. Hot pot chicken consists of a whole chicken chopped up into pieces, combined with the chilli peppers and numbing peppers that are used in the popular Sichuan style hotpot.
Other ingredients used in the spice mix are chilli bean sauce, salt, sugar, nutmeg, and Dahurian angelica root. For variety, we added a few other things, such as mushrooms, veggies, and tofu products.
We mixed our own dipping sauce using sesame paste, and then added chopped garlic, vinegar, oyster sauce and black pepper. Mixing the sauce is actually easier than it seems. Simply start with the thick paste, then add a liquid, usually water (occasionally I use beer). You have to stir vigorously for quite a while, continuing to add water until the sauce turns completely smooth.
I’m serious when I say “quite a while”: expect to spend a good 10-15 minutes stirring. As the sauce smooths out, add a bit of salt to bring out the flavor if necessary. I don’t have any specific recommended brand for the sesame paste; we just use whatever’s cheap and available at the store. [Note: brands such as Wangzhishe or Liubiju are often used, but are more expensive outside of China.]
The “hot pot chicken” really has a wonderful flavor. My only complaint is, that I don’t particularly like bone-in chicken; it is fairly common in China for chicken dishes to have plenty of bones in them, but I’m not a fan of getting the meat that way, and prefer it to be boneless.
That having been said, this dinner of authentic Cangzhou hotpot chicken was definitely a memorable and bona fide “Chinese” meal!
Next time you see a Cangzhou Hotpot Chicken restaurant (沧州火锅鸡), put in on your list to check out!
By Jeremy Bai
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