Friends, Family and a Feast: A Hot Pot How-To
When the weather is dreary and cold, there's nothing better than cooking something that heats up the house and fills it with fragrant aromas — unless it's someone else doing the cooking.
That's why the Chinese dish huoguo is perfect for winter entertaining. Even if you're a neophyte Chinese cook, hot pot will be a cinch. One of its many beauties lies in its simplicity.
Also known as Chinese fondue – or by its literal translation, fire pot — huoguo is a colorful array of meats, seafood, vegetables, bean curd and noodles that each diner chooses from and dips in a communal pot of simmering liquid. It's a convivial activity, enjoyed by friends and families drawn together by a delicious, healthful meal in which the cooking is spread among many.
If you need an excuse to party, we're in the middle of traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, which began Feb. 18 and run until March 4.
It's thought that hot pot originated in Mongolia (it's easy to imagine gathering around a coal fire in that cold and wind-swept region). In this version, mutton is the main meat. Between the 7th and 10th centuries, the technique spread to Tang Dynasty China.
Today, there are nearly as many types of hot pot as there are regional dialects in China. My friend John, a one-man hot pot encyclopedia, can easily rattle off eight different kinds, among them: mala huoguo, which features a numbingly spicy broth; suancai yu huogou, consisting of pickled greens with fish; an all wild mushroom hot pot, soft shell turtle hot pot, and even a yak version in far Western China.
This may sound exotic. But I ate hot pot growing up in the 1970s and '80s in South Carolina, and if my mother and father could find enough ingredients there to prepare the gut-busting hot pot meals we had at our house, you can find them anywhere.
If you live in warmer climes, fear not. My hot pot-loving little sister, who lives with her family in Florida, simply cranks up the air-conditioning to enjoy huoguo year-round.
Instead of a butane burner or brazier filled with charcoal, you can use a more convenient (and much easier to find) electric frying pan or wok. Or just search online where a variety of Chinese hot pots are for sale.
The staples for a satisfying hot pot experience are available at most large grocery stores: beef sliced paper-thin (ask the butcher to do it; it's difficult for mere mortals to do at home), shrimp, spinach, button mushrooms, Napa or other cabbage, and firm tofu.
There are some slightly more exotic items you can get at any Asian market and some upscale supermarkets: shiitake, enokitake (or enoki mushrooms) and other fungi; different kinds of specialty tofu (there's a puffy kind called youdofu, or "oily tofu," that I really like); various small, ready-made dumplings; frozen fish balls, mung bean sprouts, and cellophane or glass noodles.
Even if you stick to the basics, you won't be disappointed.
The only thing that needs attention before the feasting begins is dipping sauce. There are plenty of different ingredients you can put in your bowl to personalize your creation: Soy sauce, sesame oil or paste, chili, garlic, coriander, vinegar and Chinese barbecue (or Bull Head) sauce are some choices. When he was younger, my dad added an egg yolk to his mixture.
After you've concocted your dipping sauce — add a little of this and a little of that — the fun begins. We always use chopsticks, although a fork will work just fine. A ladle is useful for some of the more slippery items.
Eating is a free-for-all: Just pick what you like and dip it in the liquid (water at our house, although you can use broth) — no need to wait until someone else is finished before you dive in.
In my family, there are different styles of eating hot pot.
My father is a dumper: He likes to throw a lot of different things into the pot, put the lid on and bring the water to a roiling boil. After a few minutes, he removes — usually with a goofy flourish — the pot's cover, and we dive into the bounty of delectables.
My mother is more meticulous, a picker-and-chooser. She prefers to dip one or two slices of meat at once, swishing them back and forth until they're done; she puts in a few chunks of tofu or a couple of shrimp, keeps track of them, then carefully plucks those — and only those — out.
We kids are a little of both. My detail-oriented side enjoys separating the thin pieces of meat and watching them gradually cook. I like my meat rarer than my parents, so the attention ensures it doesn't overcook; the delicate slices of beef need just a few seconds in the piping hot liquid. But I love dumping in handfuls of leafy greens and an avalanche of tofu and going on a fishing expedition for them later.
My brother and sister are like traffic cops, making sure the bobbing bits don't travel too far outside their designated zone. Battles erupt over rightful ownership of a certain flotilla of shrimp or beef.
After hours of eating, what was once ordinary water is infused with the richness of all that has gone into it and is transformed into something entirely new. In go the noodles, and after a few minutes, we are all quiet, save the slurping of noodles and a sublime soup. It's my favorite part of a meal that holds many pleasures, so try to save room.
In the end, there is this: A family, sitting around a steaming pot of food, talking, joking, sweating, sniffling from the heat, not caring about the weather outside.
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