CHONGQING, China -- Spicy hot pot dishes that come in self-heating plastic bowls and are ready to eat 15 minutes after being doused with water aren't just big in China, they are showing how the country's dining culture has evolved.
The products debuted in 2015, and two years later videos of them went viral on Chinese social networks. As the market quickly expanded, leading hot pot brands began introducing their own instant offerings. The no-fuss meals are now especially popular among young Chinese too busy to cook -- despite being more expensive and less "instant" than the microwaveable bento meals sold at convenience stores throughout Asia.
One recent night after putting in some overtime, Zhao Ziqi, a 23-year-old company employee in Beijing, picked up an instant hot pot kit at a convenience store near her home.
"The hotness of red pepper and the flavor of Sichuan pepper help stoke your hunger even when your appetite is down," Zhao said, adding that she likes the wide assortment of ingredients -- beef, potato, seaweed, wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots.
The instant hot pots are believed to have borrowed preservation and heating methods used in ready-to-eat military field rations. They typically come with two bowls of heat-resistant plastic stacked together, the inner one holding the food and the deeper, outer one holding a packet of heating materials, including calcium oxide.
Some preparation is required. The bowls need to be separated. Packets of ingredients and soup mix have to be emptied into the top bowl along with some water. The heating material has to be placed in the outer bowl along with more water, which causes a chemical chain reaction that creates enough heat to cook with.
After they came to market, the hot pots gained social media traction because of this novel heating mechanism.
Sales boomed at online retailers, including those operated by Alibaba Group Holding, and at convenience stores. Supermarkets started to sell the meals.
Many of the products are priced at 30 yuan to 50 yuan ($4.30 to $7.17). The most popular brand is Haidilao, a global chain of hot pot restaurants that was founded in Jianyang, Sichuan Province, and has locations in Tokyo. Its instant hot pots sell for 45 yuan in Beijing convenience stores.
The price is about twice that of convenience store bentos. Zhao said she often goes for the more expensive option because the soup tastes just like the soup in a real hot pot."
Young consumers, many of whom prefer the instant hot pots' extreme spiciness, are driving demand. According to data from one online retailer, 18- to 24-year-olds make up 48%, the highest share, of instant hot pot buyers, followed by those in the 25-29 age bracket, at 20%.
By occupation, university students and white-collar workers who have recently entered the workforce combined account for nearly half of all purchasers.
By region, Guangdong Province residents represent the biggest share of instant hot pot buyers, followed Jiangsu Province denizens, then Zhejiang Province locals. These are coastal areas, where many private sector companies drive the economy.
It is believed unmarried individuals who are busy and frequently put in overtime are buying the meals from stores rather than going to hot pot restaurants and sitting down by themselves.
There have been safety issues raised about the heating mechanism. In Chongqing, where traditional hot pots are believed to have originated, a truck carrying a load of instant hot pots caught fire. According to conjecture, the calcium oxide used in the heating packs might have been improperly handled, leading to the blaze. The products are now banned from being brought aboard airplanes and some high-speed trains.
Quality standards have been introduced, and there is an initiative to improve product safety.
According to Chinese media outlets, the size of the market exceeded 2 billion yuan ($287.7 million) in 2017, when instant hot pots were social media stars. The figure was up from 200 million yuan in 2015. In 2018, the market more than doubled from the previous year to 4.5 billion yuan. One market research company forecasts sales to reach 13 billion yuan by 2025.
Chinese traditionally shared meals in large groups. But as young people get caught up at work, that's changing.