The hot pot appeared during the Liao Dynasty (about the 10th century) and was popular throughout the Song, Jin, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The emperors and royal families as well as the common people used them frequently.
Every year under the old system in the Qing Palace, “starting from the 15th day of the 10th lunar month, a hot pot was added at every meal, the content varied from mixes ingredients to instant – boiled sliced mutton. People from Northeast China preferred to eat pickled vegetables, blood, intestine, boiled stomach all mixed together. We ate this hot pot most often. Sometimes, we also ate pheasant. Anyway, we ate hot pot for three months every year. The hot pot was replaced by the earthenware pot on the16th day of the first month.” (Palace Maids’ Memoirs, by Jin Yi, p.12)
The hot pot was used during the three winter months every year for “eating hot dishes.” With regard to the quality and content of the ingredients used, there were few particulars or rules. Whatever was available could be served as long as the ingredients could be made into hot soup to resist the winter cold. This was a good way for the northern people to cope with the winter cold.
In part because she was from the north, the Empress Dowager Cixi created her famous original “chrysanthemum” hot pot. It was prepared roughly in this way:
A small hot pot with chicken extract or pork soup and some other ingredients was brought from the Imperial Kitchen. After the young eunuch uncovered the dish, the Empress Dowager took slices of raw chicken or fish and put them into the dish. The eunuch covered the dish for a few minutes, then uncovered it for the Old Lady to add some chrysanthemum flower petals to the soup. The petals had been specially picked and soaked in vitriol water (water containing alum). When the soup was ready, it tasted fragrant and delicious. It was a treasured dish of the imperial cuisine.
Using a hotpot to make instant – boiled mutton is believed to date back to Kublai, the founding emperor of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368). The story goes like this: Mongolian soldiers used to eat beef and mutton as their daily food. One day they were preparing their daily meal and had gotten the mutton and seasonings ready to cook. Enemy troops came by surprise creating a critical situation and allowing them no time to cook the meal in their normal way. The Mongolians simply boiled the mutton before they left for the battlefield so they would not starve to death, if they were not killed fighting the battle.
This solution was meant simply to fill the soldiers’ stomachs, but they unexpectedly found it to be a wonderful dish acclaimed by Kublai and his high – ranking men. After continued improvement, instant – boiled mutton became a popular dish among the common people. This story may be false, but it does support the fact that nomadic people in cold regions invented instant – boiled mutton.
By the time of the Qing Dynasty, the hot pot had become indispensable during cold months and was quite popular in the Imperial Palace. The hot pots used in the Qing Palace now reside in the Palace Museum. They show how noble the Royal Family was because the makers and owners of these dishes are clearly identified. No hot pots found among common families could compare with these for the quality of raw materials, exquisiteness of craftsmanship, or perfection of design. The raw materials used included gold, silver, gilt silver, copper, gilt copper, tin, and iron.
The hot pots and their accessories included the pots, lids, chimneys, fire – chamber covers, and bottom bases. The pots were decorated with motifs of animals, plant, the four characters for “wishing you a long, long life,” the character for “longevity,” the three characters for “good luck, wealth and long life,” the “swastika,” and the “dragon and phoenix bring prosperity.” Some dishes, lids, and bases were inscribed with the dates they were made, the names of the raw materials, or the names of the workshops. It was customary to inscribe the names of the makers during the pre – Qin dynasties. The inscriptions prove the Manufacturing Division of the Board of Internal Affairs did not have a monopoly on the hot pots used in the palace. The hot pots came from two sources. They were either manufactured by the Board of Internal Affairs or bought from independent workshops.
As only one of many drinking and dining sets used in the Qing Palace, hot pots account for an insignificant percentage of the pieces collected in the Palace Museum. However, from the Liao Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, a period covering several centuries, the hot pot finally attained perfection in its casting, production, shape, raw materials, and the design of its motifs. It evolved from its primitive use for making instant – boiled mutton to become an indispensable cooking utensil for making hot soup and food in the winter months.