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Tonghai cooking pot

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Tonghai cooking pot from the Yuan Dynasty Barracks

通海炊锅 元朝军营智慧

By Zhang Lin  Photographs by Meng

When the stock boils in the cooking pot, add fresh corn, lotus root, arrowhead, pumpkin and taro, and then a layer of cabbage and fennel. After boiling for 10 minutes or more, spread marbled meat, ham, fresh meat balls and stinky bean curd on top. Wait patiently for a few minutes after serving on the table. Lift the pot cover and a multi-colored dish appears with the sweet aroma filling the room, and the fresh and sweet delicacy is waiting to be tasted.

Tonghai Cooking Pot has a history dating back to the Yuan Dynasty(1271—1368), when the Mongolian army led by Kublai Khan during his punitive expedition to Yunnan was in juncture with starvation. A smart cook boiled sliced mutton using his helmet as a pot and presented the dish to Kublai Khan. After that, instant-boiled mutton became a favorite for troops stationed at Qutuo Pass, and the deft craftsmen in Tonghai created copper pots  that mimic the style of Mongolian Army helmets.




Deep in the ancient city


Wenmiao Street in Tonghai is a bustling scene. By passing a stream we entered the yard of the “Simadi Restaurant” that greeted us with a delightful and refreshing view of elegant simplicity decorated with Tonghai gladioli around a stone water vat in which goldfishes were swimming freely. A mottled “Wen Kui(title for scholars)” horizontal board inscribed with calligraphy hangs on the gate.

Founded in 2006, the Simadi Restaurant is famed for its cooking pot dishes, made with traditional recipes in a copper pot. Customers swarm into the restaurant even in the slack season. “You won’t get a seat in August or September unless you’ve made a reservation. We get a lot of customers from Kunming, as well as locals,” said the owner Ms. Ma, adding: “Cooking pot dishes are a must here: every household in Tonghai cooks them.” And indeed, scattered around the quiet streets of the ancient city are some twenty restaurants that specialize in the Cooking Pot.

Inside the main room, dining tables are on the left and right, with a tea table and a square table in the center, a copper pot sitting on its wooden surface. Ms. Ma told us, “It was hand-made by Lu Peixing, a Yunnan master craftsman, four or five years ago. It weighs about 25kg. He also made a smaller copper pot less than 1kg, or a work of art to be exact.” And these are the very copper pots used to cook. In the downtown area, copper pots in various shapes and sizes, are sold in many shops. The smallest can cater for four or five diners, and the biggest can feed more than ten. Some of them are still shiny and glittering, others are pretreated with a layer of black coating.


Cooking pot history


It’s almost 3pm: not yet cooking time. Shao Boyuan, Chairman of Tonghai Catering Association and Ms. Ma told us how Tonghai’s catering culture, especially its signature cooking pot dish, came into being.

As the most southern city of Han culture, Tonghai palys an important role in Yunnan’s history, disseminating the political culture of past dynasties and acting as trading post. Most importantly for us, the brilliant culture of Tonghai arose here, including a culinary culture that emphasizes five flavors in harmony. From the 1980s and 1990s, a whole host of Tonghai delicacies began to impress visitors from all across China: flower-shaped snakeheaded fish, fried pig tripe, tendons cooked with three fresh ingredients, flower-shaped fish maw, soy sauce chicken, butterfly trepang, cold rice noodles, sour trifle, bean paste cake, shao-mai dumpling. And together with other local delicacies, these continue to attract visitors from all over China. Nanjie is a long-established restaurant, founded by Tonghai Catering Service Company. “Back then, seat occupancy in the restaurant was running at 80%, and 60% of the customers were from out of town. Catering companies from eight towns and one district came to learn from us.” Ms. Ma told us.

Tonghai Cooking Pot has a history dating back to the Yuan Dynasty. When the army led by Kublai Khan during his punitive expedition to Yunnan was facing starvation, Khan ordered his cooks to cook mutton. As the military situation was at a critical juncture, it occurred to a smart cook to boil sliced mutton using his helmet as a pot, and Kublai Khan was delighted by the taste of this quick dish. After that, quick-boiled mutton became a favorite for troops stationed at Qutuo Pass, and dexterous craftsmen created copper pots that mimic the style of Mongolian Army helmets, which evolved into today’s cooking pot that combines the stove and the wok in one unit, which is good and convenient for cooking delicious food for the marching troops, and remains popular in the military forces.

 “Made from brass, these cooking pots are round wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. They have a chimney window at the center surrounded by circular and container above the stove. Bigger pots can cater for hundred, and the smaller ones can feed two or three people.” Ms. Ma told us. The best-known copper pots come from “Caijiashan”, a place in Daxing Village, Yangguang Town. In Caijiashan, known as “the Village of Coppersmiths”, many locals make copper wares for a living; they have been making copper musical instruments for nearly a century, and their copper handiworks, celebrated throughout the province, are traded to Kunming, Honghe and Wenshan.

 “Copper wares of Caijiashan started from bracelets, hairpins, gongs, spoons, cooking pots, and other articles, with limited production due to outdated tools. But modern tooling and continuously improving craftsmanship have superseded traditional processing methods at Caijiashan, drastically improving the quality of its copperware.” Today, many local restaurants in Tonghai use copper cooking pots made by the coppersmiths of Caijiashan.


Delicious multi-layered dish


When we returned to Simadi at 5pm, the restaurant’s cooks were busy at work. In the kitchen, the veteran female chefs were carefully preparing cooking pot dishes for the first table of guests.

Filling the copper pots with pre-boiled soup-stock, they added salt, black pepper and other ingredients and a few spoons of lard. After adding smokeless charcoal in the chimney, they closed the pot cover and waited for the stock to boil again.

The stock itself is exclusively made by the restaurant owner, Ms Ma herself based on her decades of experience. “Throw in free-range chicken meat chunks, pork ribs, pork bones, and duck meat, skim the top foaming scum when the soup boils. Then take out the meat and chicken when they’re soft enough to poke through with chopsticks. Take out the pork bones after an hour; when they cool down, scrape the meat off to be served with dipping sauce. The “soup” turns into a milky white and delicious stock when it’s ready; our ancestors used it instead of MSG (monosodium glutamate). That’s why cooking pot dishes don’t need MSG; proper amount of salt is all they need.” Ma also told us that the stock must be made with mineral water.

When the stock boils, add in fresh corn, lotus root, arrowhead, pumpkin and taro, spread thick layers of mountain cabbage and fennel on top, then continue boiling for ten minutes or more with pot covered.

These seemingly simple ingredients are Ma’s top picks, which are chosen based on her long experience. “We tried seasonal vegetables, like sweet potato and potato, but the flavor turned out less than satisfactory. Some ingredients get mushy too easily and can ruin the stock’s original taste.” said Ms Ma, adding: “The vegetables we use are the final choices with the best flavors after repeated trial-n-error experiments.”

After ten minutes or so, spread ham, fresh meat balls, and stinky tofu on top, along with precooked thin slices of marbled meat, to go with the vegetables. Cook for another twenty minutes, and the steaming cooking pot is brought to table and ready to serve.


Tonghai soy sauce


“Cooking pot can be served as a dish in bowls. When the whole pot is served, you need to place a water-filled bowl on the chimney as a valve for adjusting the fire in stove. Place the bowl on top to lower the temperature, and vice versa.” Ma explained, demonstrating by placing a bowl on the chimney herself.

As you open the pot cover, inviting and mouthwatering smells of meat, vegetable and charcoal start to tickle one’s taste buds, with meat over a layer of green vegetable forming a perfect colorful image. Let chopsticks deliver a mouthful of the dish, and the savory bite leaves behind a lingering aftertaste. The best way to enjoy the dish is to “cut” it like a cake, this allows you to fully savor different layers of the dish on the sectional side at once, punctuated by spoonfuls of stock soup.

You can either eat the dish alone or with a side bowl of dipping sauce. The dipping sauce (soy sauce and chili peppers) seemed unglamorous to us, but: “The soy sauce must be local; we locals prefer a special, old-fashioned taste, even though supermarkets nowadays are dominated by other brands”, said Ma.

It is said that Tonghai soy sauce has been famous since the late Jiaqing period(1796—1820) of the Qing Dynasty, the agreeable climate, unpolluted landscape and pure air of Tonghai resulting in a golden, fine quality soy sauce with a moderate aroma, neither too salty nor too light. Poured into a porcelain bowl, it clings to the edge; [rich enough for] local children often mix it with rice and eat without anything else. In the first year of the Republic of China(1912—1949), Li Genyuan, the Chairman of former Chinese Association of Agriculture and Commerce, brought soy sauce from Tiaodingzhai in Tonghai to Panama International Expo and it won the Golden Award for International Local Specialty. And by the time of the 35th year of the Republic of China, at least 10 factories in Tonghai were producing soy sauce.

The dipping sauce incorporates two kinds of chili—Tonghai chili peppers and chili pepper powder from Qiubei which are blended in desired ratio, to achieve a spicy and fresh taste of the vegetables. Cooking pot can also be accompanied by side dishes: bean jelly, papaya juice, soy sauce fish or a nut platter.

In October on the Lunar Calendar, the local custom is to pay memorial sacrificial visit  to the graves of the deceased. On Saturdays and Sundays, children cut firewood and pick pinecones on the riversides, women pick vegetable and wash cooking utensils, leaving the young lads make a fire and set up the pot — all the while chatting and laughing amid smoke of cooking. They are making cooking pot dishes.

A medium-sized Cooking Pot is more than enough for seven. After gorging ourselves and leaving the restaurant, Ms. Ma suggested a stroll to Xiushan Mountain to help the digestion. “Xiushan Mountain is Tonghai’s backyard: Some locals also bring buckets of spring water back home from there. That’s how we Tonghai locals call it a day,” said Ms. Ma.

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