In the West, chicken noodle soup, mulled wine, fondue, eggnog and macaroni and cheese are best enjoyed during the winter. They comfort our souls, warm us up and, most importantly, taste phenomenal! Luckily China has its own versions of scrumptious winter delights, too. Listed here are the best snacks to keep you warm during the upcoming winter months.
Hot Pot (Huoguo, 火锅)
My all-time favorite! There is nothing better than a hot pot pig-out with friends during the darkest months of winter. There are many versions of hot pot, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll just touch on two of the most popular: Sichuan/Chongqing spicy hot pot and Mongolian/Beijing hot pot.
Sichuan/Chongqing hot pot first appeared during the Shang Dynasty nearly 1,000 years ago, and it’s still extremely popular today. The concept is simple: take a bowl of boiling oil; pile as many red hot chili peppers into the liquid as humanly possible (note: you can order a less spicy broth if you prefer); take raw veggies, meats and/ or seafood and drown them in the spice; dip the goodness in your customized sauce; then enjoy! Ordering is usually done by ticking a sheet with a pencil, though some places like the ever popular Haidilao (海底捞) are now using iPads.
Mongolian/Beijing hot pot is similar yet different. Soldiers centuries ago on the northern frontier would slaughter a sheep, boil liquid in their helmets over a flame, then cook the mutton on spot. (Today you won’t be using a helmet, rather a bronze bowl over coals with a chimney protruding out the top.) It’s also worth mentioning that this type of hot pot isn’t as spicy as its southern counterpart, as the liquid is more of a soupy clear broth and the dipping sauce is usually sesame based. Placing your order is practically the same with pencils and paper, and sometimes iPads.
Spicy Soup (Mala Tang, 麻辣烫)
Spicy soup, or mala tang, is another awesome winter warm-me-up. It’s similar to hot pot in some senses, but different because all the ingredients are cooked in the broth and left saturated at your table for you and your friends to pick away at. In a way it’s kind of like the lazy man’s hot pot since everything is already prepared for you, and even the single person’s preference since it’s easier to eat mala tang alone (unlike hot pot where it’s nearly essential to have two or more people).
Ordering is a bit different also. You grab a basket and hand pick all the ingredients in it, then pass it to the cooker who boils and seasons everything up for you. If you’re a spice fanatic, don’t worry, the taste, as the name suggest, is just as spicy and mouth numbing as a Sichuan/Chongqing styled hot pot.
Shish Kebabs (Yang Rou Chuan’r, 羊肉串儿)
I love chuan’r! I swear I could eat about 100 of these things in one sitting, but I digress, let’s get down to business. The origins of chuan’r are a bit hazy, but it seems that they derive from the far west of China’s Xinjiang Province and/or the Central Asian “Stans.” Therefore many Uighur restaurants have perfected the art of lamb chuan’r. But if you can’t travel all the way to Kashgar to get your chuan’r fix, places all throughout northern China have this and even their own versions of it, so keep an eye out for the symbol 串. Unfortunately these joins aren’t as prevalent in southern China, but they still exist, you just need to look a bit harder.
Ordering is simple and you don’t need perfect Mandarin to do so. Just point to the chuan’r and write down how many you want. Also be on the lookout for the chicken wings, beef kebabs, and other skewers that you can throw into the mix. For vegetables and the like, these places almost always have picture menus.
Roast Lamb Leg (Kao Yangtui, 烤羊腿)
This one comes straight out of Dongbei (the region of China’s three northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Heilongjiang and Jilin; aka Manchuria). Like lamb kebabs, the history is hard to pinpoint because of its simplicity and somewhat primitive nature.
All you do is take a seat at any Dongbei restaurant specializing in this cuisine and point to the massive leg of lamb pictured on menu, then choose a few extra sides such as potatoes, rice and, of course, beer. The waiter will bring out the roasting leg of lamb on a spit and plop it right on your table. Take the knives and chop away at the pieces you want and dip it in some of the sauces for extra flavor. Chomping away at a scrumptious leg of lamb with your buddies is not only delicious; it’s also very fun and social.
If we mentioned egg nog and mulled wine, then we’ve got to give a shout out to China’s cold weather drinks. Soy milk, aka doujiang (豆浆), can be bitter, but many times they add a bit of sugar to give it a sweet side. It’s best served warm during the dead of winter. Hot Chinese tea is also a recommendation, though it may go without saying… Chinese people often prefer a dark and/or earthy tea for the winter, such as pu’er (普洱). And last but not least but not least, to really kick things up and get the blood flowing, try some baijiu (白酒)—Chinese wine. It’s strong as hell and taste a bit like paint thinner, but it’s guaranteed to rise the temperature up a few notches.
By all means this list is not complete. Please feel free to share some of your most favorite winter Chinese dishes so we can all be a bit happier (and fatter) this holiday season!
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