Equipment: Chinese/Japanese Clay Pots(砂锅/土鍋)

(Pictures will be added later! :))

The clay pot was the first cooking vessel of the ancient Asian cultures, before metal woks were invented much later. They are created with a special method that allows them to be placed over a fire and not crack. The clay pots do have limitations. First, they can only be used over a small flame or else it will crack. (This is the most irritating because it takes forever to boil!) Second, there must be liquid inside the pot at all times while it is heated or else it will crack. Third, you must handle it very gently or else it will crack. Fourth, you must “season” it or else it will crack. Fifth… okay, you should understand by now. But clay pots also have many benefits over metal pots. First, when you cook in the clay pot, you can smell this unique “smoky” flavor which can also apparently be transferred to the food you cook in it. Food cooked in the clay pot does taste better! Second, Chinese soups must be cooked in the clay pot because the herbs may react with metal. I usually use enameled cookware when I make soups like American Ginseng Chicken Soup (recipe is on this blog!) so it isn’t in contact with metal. But clay pots are even better. Third, clay pots make really good presentation, lol, really. So if you want to make Chinese soups I would recommend a clay pot. Also if you want to get unique flavor in clay pot dishes (clay pot dishes are foods specially prepared in a clay pot and are called “bao”; this includes seafood bao, tofu bao, and more. you can use a cocotte but clay pot is the traditional choice and adds the special bao flavor like how a wok adds “wok hei” in Cantonese or “guo qi” in Mandarin to stir fries.) I would recommend a clay pot. But if you’re new to Asian cooking you don’t have to get a clay pot yet, unless you cook Asian food for soups and clay pot dishes specifically.

There are many sizes and varieties of clay pots. In Japanese they are called 土鍋 (donabe, pronounced “dol-nah-beh” quickly, literally earth pot), and Chinese is 砂锅 (sha guo, “shah gwuh”, literally sand pot). The Japanese kind looks very much like one variety of the Chinese kind. But the Chinese have many other kinds too. Anyways, whatever kind you get it fine. Clay pots made in Japan are much more expensive than made in China. Mine was under $8 for the largest size but it was on sale. The tiniest donabe are for making nabeyaki udon. I have one from Daiso. The medium size sha guo are made for clay pot dishes called bao, like seafood bao, tofu bao, lamb bao, and others. This also can be used for cooking rice. Finally, the really big clay pots are for making soups like chicken soup, and also the traditional pot for oden, one of my favorite Japanese dishes, but takes forever to prepare! If you want to make clay pot rice or bao dishes, buy the medium one. If you want to make Chinese soups, buy the big one.

Once you have the clay pot you must care properly or else it will crack. First, completely submerge the pot and lid in water. Put the lid upside down in the pot. Soak overnight. Then drain and rinse, scrubbing lightly with a sponge. Be careful not to damage the pot. Then wipe the outside but not way too dry. Pour rice washing water inside to fill 80% full or so. Actually some people make congee inside, but have to throw it away. WHAT A WASTE! So I just use rice washing water, lol. Cover the pot and place over low heat. Then slowly raise to medium in 10 minutes. It might crack if you do it too fast. Now depending on your stove power you can turn to medium high but closer to medium than high. But if your stove is powerful, DON’T! If it cracks it is not my fault! Now wait till it boils. Be careful. If you aren’t watching, it may overflow and destroy your pot, because it has starch in the water. Now it took me over an HOUR for it to boil, ugh! When it finally boils (faster in the smaller pots) I stir the contents, then cover and simmer (on low, or medium-low if not able to keep a simmer) an hour. If your pot is smaller you can simmer less time. Maybe 45 minutes for medium pot and 30 for tiny nabeyaki udon pot. Then turn off the heat and leave until cool. It can be warmer than room temperature. As long as you can touch it, it’s fine. Pour and discard the cloudy water, then rinse well, both the pot and lid. Scrub lightly with a sponge. Be careful not to damage it. Then dry thouroughly. When dry, you can cover it and store it. Before your next use, some people soak it again. I think a rinse to wet the pot is fine.

Remember when you use the pot to always cook over low heat first, then increase to medium. You cannot use an electric stove, only a gas stove with a flame! Prevent quick changes in temperature. Don’t refrigerate a hot clay pot. Wait until cooler before washing too. I do not use detergent with any of my pots and pans. Especially do not use for this pot as it may absorb the soap. Lastly, for the first uses, don’t use strongly scented spices and the pot may absorb it, unless you don’t mind. Anyways, make sure you are careful. Clay pots crack easily!

As a side note, some people say you must treat cast iron carefully, like as carefully as I describe about clay pots. That’s not true. Cast iron is very durable. Of course you must be more careful with it than stainless steel, so it doesn’t rust. But don’t treat it too much like a baby. Same with enameled cocottes, people always say to use low heat, but for me the high heat is totally fine and does nothing wrong. But for clay pots, you have to treat it like a baby!

So I hope this article is very helpful! If it is too much work for you to care for the clay pot, I would not recommend you to get it. Just use an enameled cocotte instead. Those are much easier to take care of but really expensive! You can also use stainless steel, but not with Chinese herb medicines. So it’s your choice to see whether the clay pot is worth the small price and the extra space it takes up. 😀

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2 thoughts on “Equipment: Chinese/Japanese Clay Pots(砂锅/土鍋)

  1. Great write up!!!
    in Mexico, various ‘jarros’ are also used for cooking especially on the farms for the same foods and I remember tasting beans/lentils with this great ‘sabor’ (taste) that does not come from any other type of container.
    not so popular because of its because as you mentioned, very fragile material. 🙂 🙂

    1. Thank you! 🙂
      Interesting! In many countries there are clay pots because they are the earliest form of cooking pots as I mentioned. The unique flavor is very interesting and can be found in Chinese bao dishes. Yes, the material is quite fragile and I have heard stories of clay pots cracking on the stove into the fire, all the soup and food and tiny pieces of clay all over the place, not only hard to clean but waste of food! I hope that doesn’t ever happen to me, hehe

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