In China, cities like Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing have rapidly grown into modern and diverse cities. As I travel throughout China, I can see how modern food culture is developing and becoming more accepting and diverse – while traditions that have been around for over a thousand years are still strong and thriving despite the diversity and modernization of the cities. One such tradition that I’ve grown quite fond of is Hot Pot. Hot pot originated from Mongolia over a thousand years ago with the Jin dynasty where the main ingredients were horse, mutton, or beef. As the years passed by it spread throughout southern China and began to diversify with the addition of seafood. By 1644, Hot Pot became popular throughout most of China and today the variations are endless with different provinces having their own twist on this traditional meal. In Shenzhen China, since there is not only a diversity of expats but also of Chinese from many backgrounds, you get to see a unique blend of many types of hot pot recipes. Some restaurants here will serve it with boiling water while others will use a beef broth or soup to give it a more distinct flavor – as some cultures will focus on the freshness of the ingredients while others on the taste.
Hotpot basically consists of a boiling pot of water (or broth) with many fresh ingredients such as meat, veggies, and nuts that are added in and cooked. Unlike your western style soup where everything is eaten out of a personal bowl consisting of all the ingredients of a soup, Hot Pot shares one large bowl and each ingredient is added separately and then dipped into a sauce before being consumed. Think of it as a fondue but with boiling soup.
Personally, when I first came to China, I was very intrigued by the idea of Hot Pot mainly because I love soup, but one thing that concerned me about eating at Hot Pot places in China was the sanitation and food quality. If you’ve lived in China long enough, you would have experienced a food quality horror story with bad meat, bad vegetables or bad water. As such it is crucial that when you are trying this for the first time, you try it at a reputable restaurant and not a street vendor. I was extremely excited when I stumbled across a reputable restaurant that has a great reputation for using organic fresh ingredients as well as being known for their high standards of sanitation. This restaurant chain based out of Hainan goes by the name of Seasons.
Seasons was started in 2009 by the Huang Ri Gao Group and since then they have opened 8 locations. The concept was started with the idea of taking three staple items in Hainan style cooking and perfecting them in a restaurant. Those items are coconut Chicken Hot Pot, clay pot rice, and cold dishes. These are all traditional Cantonese dishes that are focused on and perfected at Seasons. A typical Cantonese dish will consist of boiling ingredients in water to pull out the nutrients and eating it with a large portion of rice. Seasons perfects this by elevating the soup using coconut water as well as bringing the standard of the rice to a new high by mixing in fresh meats and veggies. If you are a regular here, you will not need a menu since the main focus is on these three items. As it was my second time coming, I was already at where I did not need to see the menu.
Not just boiled water
Seasons is the first Hot Pot restaurant in Shenzhen China who introduced the concept of “coconut chicken” Hot Pot which takes imported coconuts from Thailand and uses the water from the coconuts as the main soup for cooking ingredients (obviously, chicken being the main staple). When I first heard about the idea of coconut Chicken Hot Pot from a friend, I was a bit confused about it, but upon trying it, I was amazed by the flavor, this is probably why Seasons has grown to so quickly to the large and well-reputed Hot Pot restaurant that they are today. When Seasons first started, all the coconuts were brought in from Hainan and used in their dishes and drinks until it became a streamlined dish in China. After that, the coconuts in Hainan quickly began to run out and pushed Seasons to import from Thailand. This is because many restaurants quickly began copying the concept. The impressive thing about that is that the customer base of Seasons has not faltered one bit with an average wait time of about two hours most evenings. The reason for this is that the locals know and understand that when you are getting Hot Pot, the freshness of the ingredients is crucial.
Fresh Ingredients / Healthy Dishes
Each of their three main dishes is created using fresh and organic ingredients – many grown and raised in private farms managed by the restaurant group themselves. On top of fresh imported coconuts (not coconut powder or substitutes that other restaurants use), Seasons is known for using fresh organic free-range chickens that are managed from their base in Hainan. These chickens are watched carefully to make sure that they are growing and moving around to eventually become lean enough for consumption. If the chicken is moving too long, it will become too lean but if it does not move enough this will also hurt the texture so it must be regulated closely.
When eating the coconut chicken Hot Pot, there is a timer that you can turn on upon adding the chicken into the boiling coconut water. This ensures that the chicken is cooked all the way through and also that it is not overcooked in the boiling broth. Ginger, pepper, and lime are mixed with a soy sauce and used for dipping. A special type of ginger called “Sha Jiang” is used as well as lime that’s grown in Hainan.
Another dish that Seasons is known for in Chinese is Bao Jai Fan or simply Clay Pot Rice. This dish originated in the Guangdong province and usually has spare ribs inside. This was considered a street food with only small shops selling it until Seasons made it a main staple of their restaurants. At Seasons the clay pot rice is mixed and steamed with a dry in house made sausage and taro. The flavors of the sausage and taro infuse during the steaming process. This also tenderizes the sausage and taro. Using a specific clay pot is crucial in this process because the clay will retain flavor as well as hold the heat better than other pots. The rice from the clay pot will be rougher to the touch because no coating is used on the inside of the pot. This is to ensure the right heat is reached.
Clay Pot Rice – must be watched carefully and turned on specific angels to cook evenly
Lastly, the cold dishes which are popular in Hainan are also served at Seasons. One cold dish that I really love here is the stir fried vermicelli noodles with wild duck eggs. The duck eggs are from wetlands in Hainan and are from free range cage-free ducks which are a rare find. It also consists of steamed okra and marinated ox meat which is freshly delivered daily. Once the ox meat is marinated and cooked, it is set to cook and mixed into the noodles with cilantro, red pepper, nuts, soy sauce, sesame oil and other spices. Other cold choices include pumpkin imported from New Zealand, gluten made from soybean, sea cucumbers and other select organic veggies.
Not just healthy but Sanitary
Sanitation is also extremely important at Seasons and their staff is specially trained to make sure that all sanitation is done correctly as they are constantly dealing with raw ingredients. The hand washing process is strictly monitored and mimicked after the 6 step hand washing process used in local hospitals by nurses and hospital staff. The food handlers, for instance, must sanitize their hands with alcohol after washing and must rewash again just to make sure that no bacteria is transferred from the raw food to the cooked dishes. One person will handle raw food for the day while another will handle the cold dishes – so there is a separation in place to better ensure your food is not being cross contaminated. Dishes are washed with a similar process to ensure that they are disinfected before being reused. They are rinsed, washed in 65-degree water with soap and disinfected using close to 100 degrees boiling water to kill any bacteria. All staff are trained to keep a strong focus on what they do and what they touch and this is noticed by guests who come to Seasons.
I feel that many restaurants – Chinese and foreign – can learn a great deal from the way that Seasons operates their locations. I always feel safe and confident in the dishes I get from here and I love the flavors that come with the fresh ingredients and use of coconuts. If you want to try it out, be sure to go early rather than late – as peak times begin around dinner (6:00 PM). The coconut chicken Hot Pot averages around 100RMB/person which is a great deal for what you get. They are open from 11:00AM-2:00PM for lunch and 6:00PM-9:00PM for dinner.
The average spend is about 100 RMB
Business Hours: 10:30 am-22:30pm