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Sandpot Cookery

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Equipment and Techniques

Fall Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(3) page(s): 7 and 8


Sandpots are to the Chinese what casseroles are to the Western world. They come in many sizes and shapes and are used for clear simmering, red cooking, even for making plain rice and mixed-rice dishes. Their use in the Chinese kitchen is extensive and diverse and includes soups, stews, rice preparations such as the breakfast congee, red-cooked dinner delights, and noodle dishes. They require minimal preparation, reheat beautifully, and should be a part of every Chinese dinner meal served to a large group.

Some sandpots are round, others oval, some are deep and some are shallow, some a single round thick handle, others have two that are thin and tiny. There are a plethora of shapes, some even looking like wine pots. Sandpots can have straight sides, sides that slope out, even sides that close in upon themselves. No matter size or shape, these mixtures of sand and clay bear their name because the exterior feels sandy to the touch. Not so the interior, it is usually glazed and smooth. With rare exception the outside may come glazed, however, the insides are almost never unfinished.

Sandpots have their origins in cooking the most common of ancient Chinese dishes, the keng, a meat and vegetable or all vegetable stew. It is believed that this dish was originally cooked in ating, that is a big pot or cauldron. In his newest book, A History of Cooks and Cooking, Michael Symons advises that ceramic versions of this ancient pot were found in the Hebei province dated as eight thousand years old. He details their importance and that of the sandpot with information from two texts from the Chou Dynasty (which started in the 12th century BCE). He refers to them as prime symbols of the state. He goes on to say that Chinese sandpots are indispensable today; how right he is.

Anderson in his classic 1988, The Food of China, says that only a seasoned cook will attempt such a subtle, gentle, slow art. Not all would agree. Lilah Kan who is now re-issuing her long-missed 1978 volume, Chinese Casserole Cookery, asserts that this hearty and robust cooking is traditional to all Chinese cuisines. She believe that the Chinese attempt this gentle art almost on a daily basis. They are and you can easily become an expert. I certainly became one years ago using her book. Many dishes from it are part of my repertoire, make them part of yours.

I am sure that Anderson and Kan know, and you need to, that putting a sandpot on a trivet or on a fire-tile over the heat source is not the Chinese way. Most often they are put directly in what is called the fire bench; that is directly over the fire itself on a traditional Chinese stove called a tsao. No matter the source, sandpots are put on the fire directly or on a ring directly over the flame. They can go in an oven, but should you do that, soak the pot and the lid in warm water for twenty minutes at the least. In every case, one never puts a sandpot on a cold surface or on a wet one when removing it from the heat. Nor should one put this pot on the heat when it is empty. If you do any of these or put it down too hard on any surface, hot, warm, or cold. it will surely crack, as it might if it is less than one-third full when used for cooking.

When sandpots are new, it is a good idea to season them. Some sources say to soak them totally covered with cold water for one day and night, pour out that water and let the pot dry naturally. Then fill it to the top with fresh cold water and boil that for half an hour over medium, not high heat, then turn off the heat and let the pot and the water in it cool once again. This, they claim, helps prevent cracking and removes tastes from the sand. One last thing, if you do not want yours to crack, never store it in the refrigerator, rapid changes of temperature put a strain on the pot and it will crack later.

I remember one evening at a now defunct restaurant called Say Eng Luk; and my husband remembers it better than I. At that dinner meal, a sandpot brought to our table spewed contents when set down too enthusiastically by our waiter. Seeking the lowest end of a very wobbly table, the liquid quickly sought that level which was towards my husbands direction. When it reached his side of the table, he yelped and leaped both up and backwards as the boiling liquid spilled into his lap. The Dung Po Pork dish lost stock, soy, sesame oil, water, and seasonings. This hot stuff went all over him and the table while meat, vegetables, ginger, and scallions remained trapped inside the two cracked pieces held mercifully together in their wire cage, but that was not mercifully enough.

Sandpots are often strengthened by a belt or two of wire, called a wire cage, around their middle. Other wires are entwined through them from top edge to top edge, in a half dozen locations. In a few other cases, the above our only totally devastating experience, some liquid manages to find a small crack and escapes. Should that ever happen, quickly pour the contents into another container, do not trust. And by all means, though some books recommend so doing, do not attempt a salvage of the container with any type of glue. Some glues can be toxic when heated.

One-pot cookery has been part of Chinese cookery for many years. You may be familiar with a pot known as the Chrysanthemum Hotpot or Mongolian Firepot. This vessel has a chimney, is traditionally heated by charcoal, and foods are simmered in broth in an 'o' shaped vessel hanging around the chimney. This chimney-pot is not ancient. It is said it came into being in the 19th century. It will be written about in a future issue of Flavor and Fortune.

Grain dishes, vegetables and meat stews were the most common dishes up untl and through Han (206 BCE to 220 CE) and later dynasties. Pots and other vessels were in use in those early times, but no pictures have been found, nor have detailed descriptions. What is known is that there were three different pots used for boiling and simmering called ting, li, and hu. There were also three pots used for steaming, called hsien, tseng, and fu. We know about these containers from writings of the Han period that say that foods were boiled, baked, spit, roasted, dry fried, and stir-roasted. These six techniques were common before the advent of the metal wok which is so popular today. There was a wok-shaped pot in early times that was made from some ceramic material(s). This round-bottomed uniquely Chinese metal cooking pot we call a kuo, made its appearance during the Tang Dynasty (616 - 907 CE).

Early sandpots prepared a one dish meal, the most common meal-type then. The more affluent probably had other dishes with one of these at their main meals. Some have conjectured that the earliest of dishes was made in one pot with rice topped with sausages or bits of meat. These were probably fancied-up with chicken, mushrooms, leafy herbs and vegetables, and some foods of the onion family.

Not only did the wok start as a pot made of sand or clay and become a popular metal one, the sandpot itself has been transformed, as well. It is not just made with other ceramic materials, but today one can be bought made of metal, with an all-metal cover, for easy oven or fire-top use. No matter the material, I recommend using a classic sandpot, and soaking it before use. Have often been asked why, the answer is because cooking in one of these gives food flavor and aroma often absent in any other type of casserole.

Test this theory. Buy one if you do not already own one; we recommend our advertisers, of course. Let us know about your efforts and do try any one of my favorite recipes below. When Lilah Kanís new book comes out, try one or all of hers. In the meantime, try interlibrary loan at your local public library as one means of locating a copy of her or any good Chinese cookbook.

Also, should you be in the right place, in or near San Francisco, go to one or both of the only two restaurants I know that specialize in sandpot cookery. One is called:
Coriya Hot Pot City, at the Pacific East Mall at Highway 80. It is at the El Cerrito Central Avenue exit in the suburb of Richmond. Sndpots are good there, but they also specialize in bar-b-cue; and as it is an all you can eat restaurant, some corners are cut. The other place is:
Bow Hon Restaurant, at 850 Grant Street, San Francisco. There are twenty-two hot pots and many other dishes on their menu. The four sandpots I tried were terrific. The owner of The Wokshop tells me that all of them are. We plan to review this particular restaurant in the next issue.

In the meantime, try the hotpot dishes below.
Fish Head in Casserole in a Sandpot
Ingredients:
2 half to one pound fish heads, gills removed
1 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons all purpose flour
1 cup corn oil
2 slices fresh ginger root, sliced thin
3 scallions, cut in half inch pieces, set green part aside
1/4 pound lean boneless pork, sliced
5 shiitake mushrooms, soaked and sliced, water reserved
1 square firm tofu, about six ounces
1/4 cup dry sherry or rice wine
1 Tablespoon sugar
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 and 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 Tablespoon vegetarian oyster sauce
2 sprigs fresh coriander, coarsely chopped
Preparation:
1. Coat fish heads with salt and then with flour.
2. Heat oil and deep fry the fish until golden brown then remove it and drain well on paper towels, Set the oil aside for another use.
3. Heat a wok and put one tablespoon of the reserved oil in it. Fry the ginger root and white part of scallions for one minute, add pork, mushrooms, and tofu and fry another minute until pork is no longer pink. Transfer to a sandpot.
4. Add tofu, wine, sugar, soy sauce, stock, oyster sauce, and coriander and put fish heads on top, cover and simmer for fifteen minutes, then sprinkle corianded on top and cook one more minute. Bring sandpot to the table and serve its contents into soup bowls there.
Tofu and Tendons in a Sandpot
Ingredients:
6 firm bean curd squares
4 ounces pork tendons, soaked in cold water for two hours
1/2 cup bamboo shoots, cut into one-inch pieces
10 shiitake mushrooms, soaked in one cup warm water, drained with liquid reserved, stems removed, and mushrooms quartered
2 Tablespoons Chinese wolfberries (Lychii chinensis)
3 cooked chicken thighs, each cut into one-inch pieces
4 cups chicken broth
1 Tablespoon dried shrimp
4 leaves spinach or other green
2 scallions, cut into one-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt or one tablespoon of thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon black vinegar
Preparation:
1. Dice beancurd into one-inch pieces.
2. Simmer pork tendons for one hour, cut into one-inch pieces.
3. Put all the ingredients except the vinegar into a sandpot and bring to the boil on medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer covered for one hour.
4. Add vinegar and simmer another half hour, then serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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