Taiwan's Irresistible Hot Pot Power
In Taiwan, eating hot pot has become a national pastime fit for any season, and the dish's many varieties and flavors are enticing ethnic Chinese from around the world.
Taiwan's Irresistible Hot Pot PowerBy Hsu Yueh-Ju
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 464 )
Taiwan's food culture has begun to shine on the global stage. Its xiao long bao (steamed soup dumplings), bubble tea and night market snacks are sources of pride increasingly familiar to foodies in the know. But Taiwan sets the world standard for another dish, one that wins the praises of foreign visitors but local diners take for granted, unaware of how formidable Taiwan is in the category: hot pot.
Taiwanese have traditionally crowded around hot pots in the winter, their white steam and piping hot soup keeping the body warm and spreading a feeling of well-being that few can resist. But eating hot pot in the summer in air-conditioned environments has also become a national pastime.
Even more impressive is that all of the world's hot pot varieties and ingredients can be found in Taiwan. From varieties that originated in China – "hot and spicy," "medicinal herb" and Manchurian (pork and pickled cabbage) hot pots – to Japanese and Thai hot pots, Indian curries, and Swiss chocolate and cheese fondues, they have all made a name for themselves here. Stinky hot pot, single-serving shabu shabu, buffet-style hot pot, and barbecue and soup combos – Taiwan has created a plethora of varieties and eating styles all competing for attention. Streets without a hot pot restaurant are the exception rather than the rule, reflecting the passion that has made Taiwan's hot pot culture No. 1 in the world.
"Our Malaysian guidebooks say that when you come to Taiwan, you have to eat hot pot," says Chen Pei-min, a Malaysian of Chinese descent, as she sits on a high stool at a Taiwanese shabu shabu joint, dipping a slice of meat in the boiling hot pot broth.
"I've come to Taiwan many times, and every time I have a different type of hot pot. It's really convenient, because you can get it anywhere," says Chen's traveling companion Hsu Chien.
Another hot pot lover, from Hong Kong, explains why he comes to Taiwan regularly to savor the dish: "Hong Kong is famous for its food, but we have very few hot pot restaurants."
Taiwan's hot pot culture is colorful and full of vitality. Restaurant walls lined with ingredients that can form hundreds of tempting combinations await groups of families or friends gathered around a central bubbling pot. Tables are covered with a plethora of vegetables, seafood, meat slices and condiments, which each diner throws into the pot. When the morsels are cooked up to the personal taste of each patron, they fish them out, dip them in sauce, and pop them in their mouths, chatting away all the while.
"There are hot pot places everywhere, ranging in price from NT$100 to over NT$1,000," says Jhuo Jing-yao, vice president of the chain Gi Hokkaido Kelp Hot Pot. Every city and town in Taiwan has a hot pot street, where mom-and-pop hot pot shops co-exist with upscale beef and seafood hot pot restaurants highly sought after by finicky gourmets.
Taiwanese hot pot has not only conquered the world, but Taiwan as well. According to figures from the "Chain Store Yearbook," there are 839 hot pot outlets in the country, the most of any category and double the number of outlets in the second-ranked category – chains specializing in Japanese or Korean food. Add to that the multitude of independently operated hot pot outlets, and it is easy to see how much Taiwanese love hot pot.
"There have to be at least 4,000 to 5,000 hot pot establishments in Taiwan," says Endy Wang, vice chairman of the Wowprime Group, which runs the highly popular Wang Steak House chain.
Simple Hot Pot Meals
The most common hot pot shops seen in local neighborhoods sell simple individual hot pots, preserving a night market feel. They offer limited choices, making it easy for customers to make their selection. If customers are not in the mood to choose, they can get a simple meal with vegetables, meat, and condiments complemented by rice and rice noodles that is perfectly satisfying. These small outlets form the backbone of the hot pot chains. The "Three Mothers" stinky hot pot chain, for example, has nearly 300 franchises alone.
Cheap Hot Pot
Taiwan's second biggest hot pot chain is the Japanese-style Cash City Shabu Shabu. The price per person may be under NT$200, but the restaurant provides a fine soup stock and freshly cut meat slices. Aside from shredding crispy cabbage and dipping the meat into the simmering soup, you can chat with the people sitting next to you or scan the hot pots created by others. After finishing their dish, customers can enjoy a bowl of sweet red bean soup with black sticky rice, the perfect ending to a satisfying meal.
Two hot pot restaurants in Taichung that have drawn attention in recent years, Karuisawa and 12 Sabu, offer more stylish decor and settings and superior ingredients for a similar low price. Their accessible pricing has proven especially popular with a younger crowd. Of the two, 12 Sabu has the advantage of using Wowprime's low-cost, high-quality food products, and it has created a stir in the central Taiwan city.
All-you-can-eat hot pot restaurants are the most successful at attracting young customers. Students love to shop around and compete with their peers to see who can get the most for their money. These hot pot restaurants are usually clustered together in one part of the city, and competition can be fierce.
But the all-you-can-eat market segment has made little progress in recent years, with new restaurants constantly opening but shutting down at nearly the same pace. The similarity of the business model means there is little to distinguish each restaurant except for which one is the cheapest. Even the desserts and ice cream they serve are nearly identical.
Upscale Specialty Restaurants
The high-end hot pot segment catering to gourmets and business customers is the fastest growing niche in the hot pot market. Stressing quality and a unique experience rather than quantity, restaurants in this market segment all have secret recipes: Gi Hokkaido's kelp pots, Taihodien Restaurant's spicy pot – a must for Japanese and Korean entertainers visiting Taiwan – and Tian Sian's medicinal herb pots, for example.
Taihodien Restaurant franchises use hot pot soup bases distributed by a central kitchen on a daily basis. On the other hand, the venerable Nin Ji Spicy Hot Pot, which has its branches prepare their own stocks, has received complaints from customers about the inconsistency of their dishes and is considering closing down its outlets and keeping only its flagship store open to concentrate on its product. High-end hot pot establishments generally offer set or a la carte menus that rarely include the standardized dumplings and fish balls commonly found at the mass market chains.
So Why Are Chinese So in Love with Hot Pot?
"Getting together" is generally the first answer that pops into the minds of hot pot restaurant owners when pondering why it is so popular with Chinese people, thinking back to the tradition of gathering around a warm hot pot with the family over the Lunar New Year holiday. No other banquet style can match hot pot for creating a festive atmosphere.
"The food culture of the Chinese is built around families gathering together," says Koriya Restaurant chairman Jhang Jing-hong. Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China... wherever there are Chinese communities, there is hot pot.
"Eating hot pot gives people a sense of well-being," says Wowprime's Wang, observing that ethnic Chinese simply cannot resist the hot pot's simmering broth and the hot steam it generates.
In China, the scale of hot pot chains is difficult for Taiwanese restaurant groups to imagine. They account for 27 percent of the total revenues of China's top 500 food and beverage companies, representing the third largest market category. And many of them are publicly listed. The Little Sheep Hot Pot chain alone had sales of NT$28 billion in 2009.
Taiwan cannot compete with China in terms of number of locations or overall scale, but it has a clear edge in several other key areas: availability, variety, diversity of eating styles, quality and class. Consumers in the two countries also have different tastes, as Chinese hot pot operators struggling to set up operations in Taiwan have found out.
"The hot pots in China are all big pots. Only recently have hot pots for individuals sprung up there, but they are still very crude," says Koriya Restaurant's Jhang.
On the other hand, when Taiwanese hot pot entrepreneurs try to gain footholds in China or in other countries with large ethnic Chinese populations, they have many advantages. Hot pot restaurants do not need executive chefs, and the process is simple, standardized and easily replicated. Using the same stock and mixing it with different ingredients and spices preferred in different parts of the country, for example, is one formula for success that can be reproduced in China.
"We can take them one level higher," says Taihodien Restaurant general manager Li Chia-chang, who recently returned from Shanghai after opening the chain's first outlet in China. Locating its new branch in a high-end consumer battleground in the city, Taihodien is preparing Taiwan's subtly spicy hot pot to do battle with the salty, oily Chinese version and capture the tummies of the Chinese consumer.
Tian Sian, which boasts a stock containing 60 different types of medicinal herbs and spices, has already made inroads into overseas markets, with more than 10 branches in Japan, Singapore and Malaysia.
Taiwan's tourism industry believes 2011 will be a banner year. Not only are large numbers of tour groups from China and ethnic Chinese tourists from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Macau expected to visit, but Taiwan's market will also be opened to independent Chinese travelers.
Many will gravitate to establishments serving hot pot, the greatest common denominator among ethnic Chinese people and the source of Taiwan's "hot power" created by its multitude of hot pot varieties and price ranges that visitors' palates find irresistible.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier