This is an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts.
During my second year in London, we – a couple and I, sharing a ground-floor flat in Brockley – decided to throw a Chinese New Year reunion dinner the time-honoured way, with steamboat. Too lazy to find a shop that sells one of those portable cookers, we ended up using two rice cookers – one with spicy soup, chicken in the other, set permanently on ‘cook’. It was enough, with several refills, to feed 12 or 15 people. More importantly, it’s the kind of meal you remember fondly 6 years later.
My point is that steamboat’s bare essentials really are bare, which makes it both profoundly easy to run a steamboat joint, and very difficult to run a good one. Which part of the meal are you supposed to improve? This is probably why some go for gimmicks; manicures while you are queueing comes to mind.
Hua Ting Steamboat in Claymore Connect, however, takes another route, and they make it clear from the start; the invitation to the tasting asked if I would prefer winter melon and conpoy, tomato and century egg, or maybe shark cartilage as the soup base. Even before I’ve seen the place I’m already favourably disposed.
At first glance Hua Ting Steamboat is not that different from other upmarket steamboat joints. Like them, it has eschewed the buffet model – always a hygiene worry – with an iPad ordering system, so the only buffet revolves around the sauces, of which there must be about thirty varieties to mix – everything from house-fried shallot oil to red fermented beancurd (nan ru) and the thick, brown sesame goop much beloved by the Chinese. The all-important soup bases, however, are taken instead from the Cantonese repertoire; after all the original Hua Ting restaurant in Orchard Hotel specialises in Cantonese food, and the shark cartilage soup is one of their signatures.
As for my choice of soup, I got something my mother still makes frequently (she’s Cantonese) whenever it is decided that the family needs something a little ‘cooling’. A section of winter melon, sliced and carved, sits in the middle of the broth; goji berries and Napa cabbage add more sweetness, but flavour-wise the real base is in the milky fish broth itself, with added umami from the addition of dried scallops. Even without adding anything, it is a self-deepening soup, its characteristics standing out more as it simmers.
A large variety of paste-based products is available. Truffle in the scallop ball was more visible than tastable, and anyway scallop – juicy and pliant – doesn’t really need it. Aged orange peel, however, is a time-tested and successful companion with the dace paste, turning the focus on the fish’s sweetness instead of its fishiness. The most successful ball, though, is also the simplest – made of shrimp paste flaunting all its crustacean flavours. The pastes can also be ordered in a bag; squeeze it into the boiling broth, cook for a few seconds, and you get a bowl of bouncy fish noodles.
The meats we tried were uniformly good too. Most memorable is the well marbled wagyu which only needs a few seconds of boiling for its fats to melt and pool in the mouth; the drunken chicken is bone-in, which makes it a little more complicated to eat. But having been thoroughly suffused with a light, almost floral liquor – probably Chinese meiguilu or rose wine – it is well worth the effort. Scallop comes in generous slabs, the soup bringing out their clean sweetness. Even the mutton, which I ordered as a sort of test, is good; the dark magenta slices are just short of being too distinctive in taste. Hua Ting uses toman for its fish slices, to mixed effect – while the white meat is mild mannered, the skin quickly toughens up and acquires a bit too much bite for my liking.
Besides the steamboat, there are also snacks on the iPad menu. A fried tofu skin pouch holds a dose of trend-ticking salted egg yolk, aptly granular, but better than that is the deep fried fish skin. This time, with a batter (mixed with salted egg yolk, because what else), it is rendered papery and crisp, turning into little salted crumbs at the slightest provocation. Perhaps most memorable among the non-hotpot items, though, is what we get at the end of the meal – a slush of perky tomato juice, made even livelier with the addition of sour plum powder. I’m almost thinking this would be a better way to open the meal and get the appetite going. But as a palate cleanser it does its job well too.
With its bright, luxuriously built interior – including two private rooms that can seat up to 7 people each – Hua Ting Steamboat is a good place for gathering in itself. But what I’m really impressed by is the way they have taken the tropes of the well-run Chongqing hotpot – from the ingredients to the sauces – and betters them with a clever tweak to suit their own, Cantonese strengths. Even the dry pot, which somehow none of us tasters ordered, takes its cues from the southeast, with such items as braised beef brisket and spring and onion chicken.
It’s nothing profound; it’s literally the most obvious thing to change about the hot pot, namely the soup. And yet it works. After the meal there is happy satiety without the scorching or the over-salting that happens in many a Chinese-run joint; and I help myself to a bowl, then another two, of the thoroughly enhanced winter melon soup. And in that detail is all I need to know about the place.
Hua Ting Steamboat
442 Orchard Road (map)
Claymore Connect, #01-08
Hours: Daily, 11.30am – 2.30pm, 5.30pm – 10.30pm