Chinese Sand Pots

Chinese “sand pots” or “sandy pots” earn their Chinese name because their exterior is off-white and sandy in texture, left unglazed to conduct the heat with maximum efficiency. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes, all striking and all remarkably inexpensive. Of greatest service is the squat-bellied sand pot, with a sandy, unglazed exterior and a smooth, fire-glazed interior ranging in color from milk chocolate to a deep chocolate brown.

Chinese sand-pot designs: all for stovetop use (Chinese have no ovens), made from the same combination of sand and clay, with an off-white, sandy-textured, unglazed exterior for best heat conduction, and a smooth, glazed interior to contain moisture

The one-handle, squat-bellied Chinese sand pot

the loop-handle, squat-bellied Chinese sand pot
a squat-bellied sand pot with one long and one loop handle, reinforced with protective wire

The squat sand pot is commonly available in two designs: the first, with one long, protruding sandy handle, and the other equipped with two small, glazed, and loop-like handles. Both sorts have close-fitting lids, left sandy on the inside to absorb steam during cooking, and usually glazed brown on the outside for extra strength and good looks. The lids are variously domed or plateau-shaped, but all of them have a small steam hole pierced close to the rim.

The design you choose is mostly a matter of taste, as the contours and construction of the two are nearly identical. The one-handle model bears the stamp of tradition. It is also available bounded by a protective wire brace, which is highly recommended if you are the sort who bangs things around. (Naturally enough, this is the design used in restaurants.) The two-handle design is a shade more elegant, perhaps, and fits easily onto a table for serving. In my house, I have both.

Size is a more important consideration. Smaller pots with a 1-quart capacity and 7½-inch diameter are cozily suited for stewing garlic and black mushrooms, and for reheating leftovers. The largest size, with a 5-quart capacity and 12-inch diameter, will accommodate a whole duck. An intermediate 3-quart size with a 10-inch diameter, is just right for embracing a stew of chicken and chestnuts or a double batch of spareribs. I have all three sizes (the trio bought for under $25 in San Francisco’s Chinatown), and enthusiastically recommend getting at least two. If you must restrict yourself to one pot only, the 3-quart size is the one to get.

Before buying a sand pot, check it carefully for cracks. A Chinese dealer will ritually fill the pot you’ve chosen with water, then put it on top of newspaper to test for leaks. If your dealer isn’t tradition-minded, then give the pot a thorough eye-balling.
Once purchased, I have never bothered to season or seal these pots in any way. I wash them out with hot water to remove the dust of Kiangsi province (where they are made now, as they have been for centuries), then promptly use them, and if they season themselves through use, I wouldn’t be surprised. I use the pots with great care, heating them slowly and always with ample liquid inside, but beyond that I have never found any special treatment necessary.
Moreover, if the pot should crack through to the inside glaze, the crack may heal itself. (Cracks restricted to the outer sandy surface are inconsequential, though a sign to treat the pot with extra tenderness.) I have one large sand pot that leaked a bit through a crack in the bottom at a time when I had no choice but to cross my fingers and reuse it immediately to stew a second duck. The crack sealed itself shut in the second stewing and has never opened since. Which is to say, don’t dispose of a cracked pot until you have heated it with a bit of sauce inside (my instinct says to make it a very rich, sweet sauce) and seen if it would mend.
Cleaning a sand pot is a simple matter of hot water and some gentle wiping with a barely soaped sponge. Abrasives will be injurious to both the glaze and the semi-porous sandy finish, so don’t use them.
Most important, dry the pot literally to the core after washing, either by leaving it to sun-dry for several hours with the lid beside it turned sandy side up, or by putting the pot and the lid in an oven for an hour or two with the pilot on. A damp sand pot kept in a dark place will mildew. If it does, simply wash it out, but be sure to sun-dry or oven-dry it thoroughly before storing.