For many people, the pleasure of eating clay pot rice is digging for the crispy crust that sits at the bottom of the bowl.
Clay pot rice is a classic Cantonese dish, often enjoyed during the mild winter months of southern China.
The dish’s name comes from the way it’s cooked, with the meat, vegetables, and rice all steamed inside a clay pot. The pot’s porous material is said to help the ingredients absorb the smoky flavor of the charcoal as it cooks.
When it’s served, one can hear the sizzling sound of the ingredients inside still cooking. For many people, the pleasure of eating clay pot rice is digging for the crispy crust that sits at the bottom of the bowl.
Clay pot rice is often eaten as a meal in itself. Shops typically offer an array of toppings, from pork ribs and beef to Chinese sausage and salted fish.
Restaurants catering to younger clientele might offer modern takes such as cheese and sausage and mala 麻辣 (spicy) chicken.
Records of clay pot rice date back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-256 BC), when it was described as one of the acceptable cooking methods in the imperial palace.
“It’s a very satisfying experience to have warm clay pot rice, especially in the winter,” says Chan Kwok-ying, who runs Hing Kee, a popular clay pot rice eatery in Hong Kong.
The trickiest part of making clay pot rice, Chan says, is getting the right amount of water. Too much, and the rice becomes soft and porridge-like. But too little, and the rice—and ingredients—will come out raw and undercooked.
Luckily for Chan, 40 years of experience have helped perfect her recipe. She took over the shop from her father in 1997, after he ran it for more than 10 years.
“Our kitchen has 40 stoves, and during our peak a few years ago, we made up to 1,000 bowls a day,” Chan says.
To keep up with the times, she expanded the topping offerings. “About 20 years ago, Hing Kee only had five toppings,” Chan says. “Now, we have over 60.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, though, has struck a blow to Chan’s business, which sits on Temple Street, a popular tourist spot.
Travel restrictions mean tourism to the city has slowed, cutting into a main source of foot traffic for Chan.
“I really hope we can get back to normal life soon,” she says. “Many people are still afraid of eating out. I hope in the near future, everyone can travel freely.”