This time, a real Beijing favorite.
I wanted to dine at Haidilao. The Chinese hotpot chain had taken Singapore by storm with its excellent service and theatrical entics, so I was hoping to sample the original experience when I returned to Beijing. However, during a random conversation whilst in Beijing (the Chinese really are friendly), to try this other chain – the one “they”, as Beijingers, say “they” like better. Well, when in Beijing, do what the Beijingers do, so under peer pressure, I was literally accompanied to the entrance to the nearest of this “popular chain”: Xiabu Xiabu. Haidilao, “they claim”, is for the “tourists”.
A transliteration of the Japanese, shabu-shabu, Xiabu Xiabu is a Beijing hotpot chain. At first glance, Xiabu Xiabu looks like the ultimate anti-Chinese establishment, with its individual, bar-style hotpot in contrast to the communal dining that the meal is associated with. In reality, with modernizing lifestyles, rising disposable incomes and a greater eat-out culture, Xiabu Xiabu is designed for the new generation of Chinese. And its popularity across the capital is proof of its concept – it has 300 outlets, mostly in Beijing, with a few gradually opening in Shanghai. As far as expansion goes, Xiabu Xiabu is still a small fry in the greater sense of it all. Its effects however, have been felt all across the nation, and beyond, inspiring “startups” like the much younger Shilifang.
Beijing hotpot, as I shall call it, offers some reasonable differences to the steamboat that Singaporeans like you and me are familiar with. For one, despite the alluring prospect, broth drinking is not encouraged (you can, but it’s not common to do so). The concept behind the hotpot is that the broth functions only as a cooking tool, not as part of the meal. The next point is the sauce. This takes so much precedence and importance, that it functions as the main theme of the meal. In place of another plate, Chinese diners are all too happy to lift the food out of the hotpot, dip it generously into the sauce before eating.
Xiabu Xiabu offers 7 different soup bases, including tomato, Indian curry, mushroom, duck, mala, Thai tom yum and the ubiquitous clear chicken soup. In addition, there are also a number of packet sauces, which are basically pre-mixed and seasoned for you. There are set meals which are quite the steal, especially if you’re low on budget, but need to a lot. Alternatively, you may order a la carte.
You know what? I don’t know whether it’s the sub-zero temperatures, or Xiabu Xiabu, but there’s just something that’s infinitely comforting about having hotpot. It’s like a warm, comforting embrace that restores the hope within, although damn, a la carte is really expensive.
Maybe, I’ll stick to the set next time.