A long line of Chinese is rarely a good sign – usually it indicates a totalitarian regime or a tourist trap. Except, of course, in front of a Chinese restaurant. Then you know you’re in the right place.
Families, men in suits and young girls who flawlessly manage to find their mouths with chopsticks without taking their eyes off the smartphone screen – Yuan’s in Amsterdam has been open for just three months and apparently the new hotpot hotspot for the Chinese expat -community.
Hotpot is the international word for Chinese fondue, in which the diners sit around a collective bowl of hot broth in which everyone cooks pieces of meat, fish or vegetables as they please. That is not necessarily new in the Netherlands. I still have a fragment of a memory from 1989: my grandparents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary at a chic Chinese restaurant in Amstelveen and I was allowed to hang large shrimps in a steel net in a pan of steaming broth. They called it ‘Mongolian stew’ back then. It made an impression.
Yuan’s Hot Pot is a modern franchise chain that is all about that fondue principle. The company was founded in 1996 in Chengdu and has more than 400 branches throughout China. The restaurant on the Rijnstraat is the third foreign establishment (besides Sydney and Vancouver). The concept is built around uniform tables, equipped with a hole in the middle containing a hot plate. A bowl with broth is placed on it. The card is on an iPad with which you can order directly. You order the basic stock once for a tenner and then individual skewers (0.90 euros per person) or modest bowls with meat, vegetables, rice or noodles. A teapot is refilled throughout the evening, dipping sauce can be obtained from the condiment bar. Everyone gets an apron from the case.
As a rule, there are two kinds of Chinese restaurants: Chinese for Chinese, with untranslated menus full of exotic dishes that you as a Westerner will never see, and Chinese for Dutch, with everyone’s friends like chicken with pineapple in sweet and sour sauce. Yuan’s Hot Pot puts a big line through this dichotomy. Yuan’s mission is to introduce the world to Chengdu cuisine, a flashy commercial let us know.
Each region in China has traditionally had its own hotpot, such as the Mongolian in the north and the Cantonese in the south (in Japan they know it as sukiyaki of shabu-shabu). The hotpot we eat at Yuan comes from Sichuan province. It is sometimes said that a real Sichuan hotpot is so mercilessly spicy that it is actually inedible, but it is still doable because of the sedative effect of the Sichuan peppers. But the basic stock – freshly made every day from chicken and pork, with ginger, Sichuan pepper, shi’itake, date and goji berry – can be ‘spiced up’ to taste with a chili-sichuan spice mixture from a packet of Yuan’s house brand. You don’t have to finish the bag, you get the rest to take home.
That flexible attitude towards the lower chili tolerance is the only concession to western tastes. After the king prawns, thinly sliced beef and pork tenderloin, the menu quickly becomes ‘exotic’. Pig kidneys, frog legs, bovine aorta – that works. (There’s only one dish without an English translation, but the picture makes no sense – it’s intestines.)
In Chinese cuisine, structure is at least as important as taste. Aorta tastes like nothing. Doesn’t matter, the flavor will come from the broth. It’s about the unique structure. Firm, yet soft, snappy crispy like the tree ears (black flat mushrooms), but thinner and less smooth. The baby octopuses are slippery and firm in an elastic way. The pig skin is bouncy chewy in a more soft, sticky, gelatinous way. If you manage to let go of the culturally pre-sorted, negative charge on all adjectives in this paragraph, once you see the fun of all those different structures, your palette is suddenly twice as big: then you can paint with taste and structure. Then you can sincerely look forward to chicken knuckles and duck tongues.
Main question: is it tasty? Yes. The base stock is rich, aromatic and calming. The spicy condiment is energizing and layered. The meat is clearly visible, neatly displayed in refrigerated display cases. The kidneys are clean and crispy fresh. You are eating deliciously crispy, briefly cooked vegetables and you can fish your shrimp out of the stock before they become rubbery. Everything at hand. Everything in your own hands. There is also plenty for the less adventurous eater – ribs, spicy beef, crab sticks. For the vegetarian there are tofu and other soy products, vegetables and mushrooms (the broth can also be vegetarian).
It is hoped that a branch will be established soon in other major cities, because an evening fondue at Yuan’s Hot Pot is above all a lot of fun, with friends, family, colleagues. The service is open and very helpful. The concept is inviting and captivating: in no time you will find yourself in the middle of a fairytale wealth of ingredients, which are placed on a wooden kitchen ladder as soon as the table is full. Because the portions are small, you can also try a lot with just the two of you. And you can try something adventurous with a very low risk, it’s only one skewer for ninety cents. Great opportunity to try a chicken heart, right?