There is "no question" that claypot rice is the most comforting food among all types of cuisine in Hong Kong, according to chef Alvin Leung of two-MICHELIN-starred Bo Innovation. "In this city, everyone craves a pot of claypot rice," he states without hesitation.
Indeed, most Hong Kongers will have fond memories of enjoying a claypot filled with steaming hot rice to fend off the cold winter breeze. Claypot rice, known as bao zai faan in Cantonese, is a dish where the rice (faan) is cooked in a clay pot (bao zai) with preserved Chinese sausage or other preferred toppings, and allures diner with the smoky aroma coming from the scorched — but never burnt — rice.
Danny Yip, the restaurateur behind The Chairman, a MICHELIN Plate restaurant, in Central, Hong Kong, is one such Hong Konger. His fondest memory of the Cantonese comfort food are vivid recollections of how the dai pai dong, a type of roadside eatery in Hong Kong that offers local Chinese dishes at economical prices, near his childhood home in Hung Hom would always set out a row of charcoal stoves for cooking claypot rice in the winter. Whenever he passed by the eatery after school, the smell of the rice would make him salivate.
“We were poor back then and we could only afford to eat claypot rice once or twice a year, and it’s always shared among family. It is this experience that shapes my sentiment towards the cuisine — it always brings me a heartwarming feeling, a connection to home,” Yip shares. “I believe most Hong Kongers will have similar experience and memories."
The secret behind the "golden" scorched rice
To most people, our love for claypot rice is embodied by our action of eating them frequently. But Leung and Yip take it one step further. In 2009, Leung created a Lap Mei Faan Ice-cream when Bo Innovation first opened. Lap Mei Faan means claypot rice with Chinese cured meat. The scoop of ice-cream that Leung developed was served in a claypot together with a few pieces of real scorched rice and tasted exactly like Lap Mei Faan, only that it's cold.
“Heston Blumenthal created a Bacon and Egg Ice-cream incorporating the flavours of English breakfast — the most popular item in the UK. So when I decided to do a Hong Kong version, I had to make it with the most distinctive Hong Kong flavour,” Leung says, proving how symbolic the dish is in the eyes of the Demon Chef.
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Yip, meanwhile, began to offer claypot rice at The Chairman two years ago. “We had always wanted to offer claypot rice but our kitchen was too small to allow that. Now that we have expanded our space, it’s finally possible,” Yip says.
But why does he need such space, as claypot rice can be prepared over a stove? Yip reveals that after countless experiments, they concluded that the best way to produce the perfect claypot rice is to bake it, rather than to cook it over a fire as it is traditionally done. To do this, they needed to install a sizeable oven.
“At The Chairman, we first cook the pot of rice with the toppings over a fire. Once the water comes to a boil, we remove it from the fire and let it bake in the oven. The claypot rice will stay in there for almost 30 mins to allow the starch in the rice to come out gradually. That’s how you allow a golden, crispy rice crust to form — slowly but surely,” Yip reveals. Using this cooking method, Yip is proud to say that their rice ends up not only nice and fluffy, but each pot is guaranteed to have a nice pot-width base of scorched rice — a bonus that many claypot rice lovers long for.
Over at one-MICHELIN-starred Celebrity Cuisine, whose claypot rice is highly recommended by Bo Innovation's Leung, chef Cheng Kam Fu still prefers to cook his rice the traditional way: over a fire.
“Scorched rice is nice to have, but you don’t need to have lots of it,” Cheng says. For him, the best claypot rice does not to have a full claypot base of scorched rice, just some of it will do. Cheng hence prepares his claypot rice by first cooking the rice and the toppings over high heat on a stove. When the rice is cooked, he turns down the heat and moves the pot around to make sure the rice is being cooked evenly. The result is a pot of pleasantly chewy rice with some nice brown crust. The colour of the scorched rice is lighter compared to the one at The Chairman, but they are equally aromatic and comforting.
In pursuit of quality meats
Despite their different personal preference when it comes to cooking the rice, Yip and Cheng share the same pursuit of top quality Chinese cured meats.
And there is a reason behind this pursuit. Chef Mak Kwai Pui of Tim Ho Wan, who is a fan of claypot rice, asserts that cured meats are an apt topping because they add flavours to the rice and enhance the overall taste of the dish. "There is a purpose to why the cured meats are there," says Mak. Leung says the meats are a seasonal product for winter, and their inclusion in claypot rice are classic feature and widely loved by local diners for many years. This is why both Yip and Cheng are very particular about the meats they use.
“The Chinese cured meats I use are from my hometown Bao'an in Guangdong. The meats are dried naturally under the sun, and that gives them a very unique aroma,” Cheng, who grew up in Bao'an and moved to Hong Kong when he was 18, says. He still remembers seeing his neighbours drying the meats when he was small.
“I order my cured meats from these old masters. They have been curing meat before I became a chef. They season the meats with a traditional recipe and when you bite into the meats, you can taste the fragrance of the Chinese wine and the sweetness of the meats. There is a pleasant flavour from the fat but it’s not overly salty,” Cheng says.
Yip, on the other hand, has set up his own production line to produce Chinese cured meat at The Chairman's own farm in Sheung Shui, New Territories. There, they clean the pork belly, marinate it, and hang it in a windy corner for five consecutive days to let it bathe in the sun and gradually dry to their desired texture. There is a lot of work — and fret — involved.
“There was one time when the drying process was on the third day and it rained. We had to throw away the 100-catties worth of high-quality pork belly. We were beyond frustrated,” Yip recalls, and confesses that they are always edgy when the drying process starts every year. And he turned out to be having exactly of those days when we met him for this interview: the drying process was into its final day, and it drizzled.
We called him a week after the interview to find out how the meat went, and he shared with relief that they had decided to shorten the process by half a day and the flavour had not been compromised. “I’ve tried the meat a few days ago, the taste is just superb,” Yip says, with notable joy in his tone.
Another common thread between the claypot rice offered at Celebrity Cuisine and The Chairman is the use of Japanese-style claypots, known as donabe. The Chairman's Yip chooses them as the clay used to produce Japanese claypots (pictured left) has a high density and hence a stronger ability to sustain the high cooking temperatures, helping him to achieve a better baking result. Cheng says he uses Japanese-made claypots, which are usually colourfully decorated, for their prettier presentation. Both restaurants use imported claypots of different sizes to serve different numbers of diners.
Both restaurants fill them with jasmine rice, a type of long-grain rice, for its drier texture, which suits the preferences of most diners.
Many people also like to add some soy sauce when they enjoy claypot rice. The Chairman uses soy sauce from local producers, the Kowloon Soy Company, which has 100 years of history, for its natural taste.
Celebrity Cuisine uses “first draw” soy sauce from a local brand. “First draw’ soy sauce is a light soy sauce collected when the beans are fermented for the first time. Its quality is the highest with a richer taste. Both restaurants will season the soy sauce with their own recipes before serving it to the diners.
However, although Cheng prepares his soy sauce with care, he doesn’t use it when he enjoys his claypot rice.
Many ways to enjoy claypot rice
“I supply it in case some diners want it, but personally I don’t think soy sauce is needed. The dish is tasty enough with the oil of the Chinese cured meat enveloping the rice grains,” Cheng shares, adding that he could eat four bowls of such “plain” rice in one go when he was younger. On the contrary, when the rice arrives, Yip likes to take a small portion of rice and eat it with a few drops of soy sauce, and replaces the lid to let the rice to “bake” for a little while longer. When he reckons the rice is ready, he would remove the lid and mix the rice together with the scorched rice layer and the toppings before digging in.
Pictured right: Good friends Mak Kwai Pui and Cheng Kam Fu met up at Kwan Kee for claypot rice on a chilly evening in November 2020. (Photo: Mak Kwai Pui)
Chef Vicky Cheng of one-MICHELIN-starred VEA excels at “French x Chinese” cuisine and is highly interested in local flavours. Claypot rice is one of the items he often makes for his friends for suppers post-service.
“I am a big fan of claypot rice and I can eat it all year long. During supper, my friends and I would finish the rice first, then we would dip the crust into soy sauce, and have it with whisky — my favourite pick being the Macallan 18. I find the crusty, pleasantly greasy crunch of the rice goes perfectly with whisky,” Cheng says. Last year, VEA once served a main course finished with claypot rice cooked over charcoal. In January 2021, Cheng will open a new Chinese fine-dining restaurant just one floor below VEA, and claypot rice will feature on the menu as a signature item.
Leung and chef Vicky Lau (pictured right), who helms one-MICHELIN-starred TATE, both like to add some soy sauce into the rice, mix everything together and enjoy it immediately. Lau launched a local-inspired “Ode to Hong Kong” tasting menu earlier this year and TATE serves an eclectic mix of French and Chinese cuisine. She says: “Kwan Kee and Sheung Hei are my go-to places for claypot rice. I love the fact that their rice is freshly made, and I like to enjoy it with white eel, chicken and sausage toppings. I would mix everything together, with the house-made soy sauce. I also like to add a bit of the crispy rice to enhance the texture.”
Likewise for Bo Innovation's Leung, the key is to enjoy the rice when it is very hot. “When you open the lid of the claypot rice, the fragrance of it is as enticing as white truffles! I won’t wait, I will add some soy sauce and eat it immediately,” Leung says.
If you can't wait to dig in, these are four restaurants mentioned in the article where you can go for your claypot rice fix.
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Hong Kong Macau 2020
Address: 3 Kau U Fong, Central, Hong Kong
Helmed by chef Cheng Kam Fu, the restaurant launches a seasonal menu every winter that features snake soup and claypot rice. The claypot rice here is cooked in a Japanese claypot over a fire, and there is only one choice on the menu: Rice with Chinese Cured Meat (HKD$480/portion for 4 persons). Claypot rice with other toppings, such as meat patty with salted fish, spare ribs or beef patty, are available upon request.
MICHELIN Plate, MICHELIN Guide Hong Kong Macau 2020
Address: 18 Kau U Fong, Central, Hong Kong
The Chairman, run by Danny Yip, serves claypot rice all year round and pre-orders are a must. A variety of toppings are on offer: Chinese Cured Meat with Sweet Potato, Fresh Beef with Pickled Ginger, Dried Japanese Sardine and Shrimp, Chicken with Shiitake Mushroom, and Spare Ribs (all are HKD$100/person). Every pot of rice is first cooked in a Japanese donabe claypot over a fire and then baked in the oven. A pot-wide base of golden, crispy scorched rice is guaranteed.
Kwan Kee Clay Pot Rice (Queen's Road West)
Bib Gourmand, MICHELIN Guide Hong Kong Macau 2020
Address: 263 Queen's Road West, Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong
For 20 years, Kwan Kee’s chef Tam Wah Kwan mans the kitchen day after day to make sure every pot of rice is prepared to the highest standards. Claypot rice is served at night only, and according to our MICHELIN Inspectors, "the rice is chewy and fragrant, with a crispy crust at the bottom perfectly scorched from the right amount of heat and time". Our inspectors' favourite is the White Eel Claypot Rice (HKD$105).
Sheung Hei Claypot Rice
Bib Gourmand, MICHELIN Guide Hong Kong Macau 2020
Address: 25 North Street, Sai Wan, Hong Kong
Sheung Hei is famous for their myriad variants of claypot rice. Apart from the classic Rice with Chinese Cured Meat (HKD$80) and Rice with Beef and Egg (HKD$80), their menu also features less common options such as Rice with Meat Patty with Semi-dried Fish (HKD$90). The restaurant also offers other home-style Chinese dishes or you can order dim sum to go with your meal from Sheung Hei’s sister dim sum restaurant located just next door.