You see them everywhere in Beijing on cold winter nights—hot pot restaurants, glowing in the darkness like real-life, Chinese versions of a Norman Rockwell painting: happy friends and cozy couples, laughing around their hotpots as steam wreaths up and fogs up the windows like frost.
Chinese cuisine is full of comfort food, but when it comes to warming winter eats nothing beats hot pot—specifically, mutton hot pot. In northern China, where the winters get bitterly cold, mutton hot pot has become a cold-season favorite for its hearty taste and warming properties. But mutton isn’t just a going-out food; plenty of families make their own mutton hotpots, as well as stewed mutton and mutton dumplings.
So what is it about mutton that’s made it a winter favorite among Chinese people?
The Health Benefits
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, mutton is an excellent food for warding off the cold and keeping warm. Not only does it keep you cozy, it also replenishes nutritious energy and helps improve circulation. (Goat meat, on the other hand, is considered a “cold” food, not good for winter.) In Inner Mongolia, it’s an old tradition for new mothers to eat mutton soup to recover from childbirth. In China, sheep are usually raised in the north while the best-quality mutton is from the Inner Mongolia grasslands, where sheep eat organic grass, drink fresh water and plod around in the sunshine rather than being cooped up in a barn eating compound feeds every day. Best of all are supposed to be the sheep from Hailar (海拉尔), a city in the Hulunber grasslands, which are fed on wild leeks (野韭菜, yě jiǔcài) and so are free from mutton’s usual rank smell.
Whether in a restaurant or at home, the most popular and easiest way to eat mutton is to enjoy a mutton hotpot (涮羊肉, shuàn yángròu), which can be cooked in salty or spicy broth, and can include other meats as well as a variety of vegetables.
Though you can now find chains hawking it on every corner, mutton hotpot was originally an imperial dish dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1206-1368). Despite its royal associations, according to legend, the dish was invented under somewhat less extravagant circumstances—during a military campaign led by Emperor Kublai Khan. It was during a grueling march south that Khan’s soldiers and horses collapsed, famished and exhausted. Suddenly remembering the stewed mutton from his childhood, he ordered that a sheep be slaughtered. Just as the cook was dressing the sheep, a messenger rushed in to the emperor’s tent to report that enemy forces were approaching. Instead of abandoning his meal, Khan, who was ravenous for mutton, shouted to the cook, “Mutton! Mutton!”
Knowing that Khan had an explosive temper, the cook wracked his brain for a quick solution. Slicing the mutton thin, he threw it into a boiling pot, and when its color had changed, he transferred it into a bowl and mixed it with salt. After polishing off several bowls of mutton, a revived Kublai Khan led his army to face the enemy troops, and won a devastating victory.
At the celebration feast, Kublai Khan triumphantly ordered the power-packed sliced mutton. The cook chose tender pieces of lamb, sliced it into thin pieces, and then boiled it with spices to serve to the generals. The generals were floored, and while praising the mutton asked the chef what it was called. The cook answered, “This dish doesn’t yet have a name. Please grant it one.” Kublai Khan smiled and said, “ Just call it shuàn yángròu (涮羊肉)!” After that, mutton hotpot entered the pantheon of imperial Chinese dishes.
This dish gained further popularity during the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). Historical records show that the Kangxi Emperor and Qianlong Emperor served mutton hotpot during grand feasts for important people (Qiān sǒu yàn, 千叟宴) in the Forbidden Palace. Later on during the Qing Dynasty, the dish spread to common folk, turning it into what it is today—a popular treat for anyone and everyone!
Getting Your Own
If you want to try out some mutton hotpot on your own, check any of these popular chains: 聚宝源, 宏源涮肉城, 东来顺, 海底捞.