Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday in many Asian cultures, and like most holiday celebrations, centered around food. This is the first time in many years that I’ve been able to spend Lunar New Year with my parents and brother’s family. In Taiwan, where my family is from, a common way to hold this family reunion is to do the cooking together at the table, with hot pot.
For holidays and other special occasions when I was growing up, my family would break out an electric skillet and prepare for a meal of what my mother translated for us as “tabletop cooking.” I didn’t know until years later that this meal already had an English name, hot pot. It is still a meal my family enjoys when we get together.
Chinese hot pot or huo guo literally translates as “firepot.” It has existed for over 1000 years in China, and is thought to be of Mongolian derivation, but this is probably a myth, as it is not a part of modern Mongolian cuisine. It originated somewhere in Southern China, and spread to Northern China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906). From China, this meal has spread in many variations in different Asian cultures. I grew up eating the Taiwanese version, which involves a clear pork or chicken broth as a base, and various meats, seafood, tofu, vegetables and noodles as the ingredients. It traditionally is meat/seafood based, but you can certainly make this vegetarian/vegan by omitting those ingredients.
It’s basically choose-your-own-ingredients, which each diner/cook adds to the bubbling communal broth. The best part is making your own dipping sauce (in Taiwan, a raw egg is combined with Sa Cha sauce (a soy and seafood flavored “barbecue” sauce) and/or soy sauce, but you can also add chilies, minced garlic, cilantro, scallions, and any other variety of savories, to your taste.) People can get very creative with the sauce making.
My favorite aspect of eating hot pot is not the individual ingredients I have chosen, nor the sauce I have created, but how the broth tastes at the end, when the flavors of each person’s choices have simmered together into an unimaginably rich, fragrant broth. The complexity of this flavor is the product of the contributions of the many cooks who created this group meal, the ultimate expression of communal cooking.
Other variations of hot pot are the Japanese shabu-shabu and Steamboat in Singapore and Malaysia, with flavorings differing upon local tastes and ingredients. These versions are fairly similar to the Taiwanese version . The most distinctive variation is served in Southwestern China, in Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. After college, I spent some time working in Sichuan, and during my first week there was treated to the local specialty, Ma-La (numb-spicy) hotpot. Rather than a clear broth, this is a thick, puree-like sauce which reminds me of Mexican mole (with chiles and ground sesame seeds common to both), and gets its name from the Sichuan hua jao (flower pepper), which leaves a not-unpleasant numb sensation on the tongue. Aside from the cooking sauce, the meats offered to me on that visit were memorable: pigtails (curly!) and rabbit ears, among other offal. I realized that these tidbits were prized, expensive, and offered to me only because I was an honored guest, but I just couldn’t manage to try them. Fortunately, because everything is community property around a hot pot, nothing went to waste; my dining mates were more than happy to partake of these special tidbits.
You don’t need special ingredients to enjoy hot pot cooking. Just gather the foods, friends and family you love, and gather around a bubbling broth to savor the joy that communal cooking can bring.
Taiwanese Hot Pot
Customize to your preferences and dietary needs- everything is optional!
This recipe includes meat and seafood, which is traditional.
If making a vegetarian version, substitute all the meats with a wide variety of mushrooms– shiitake and enoki are our favorites– and tofu.
A variety of thinly sliced meats (hint: slice while frozen to make paper-thin slices), such as chicken, pork, meat and lamb
Fish balls or fish cake
Shrimp, sliced squid
Tofu, tofu skin (yuba)
A variety of Chinese greens, chopped (I like whole leaf spinach and Napa cabbage in my hotpot)
Cubed taro root
Sliced lotus root
Noodles, especially quick cooking mung bean noodles or rice vermicelli
Broth, chicken or pork are used most commonly; if making a vegetarian version, I recommend a mushroom broth
Condiments: Sa Cha sauce, soy sauce, minced garlic, chilies or chili sauce, diced cilantro, chopped scallions, raw eggs for stirring into the sauce (optional)
Traditionally, a large wok over hot coals.
Modern home cooks can use a large, covered electric skillet or any pot with a portable induction burner. (My parents still use the covered electric skillet they received for a wedding gift in 1967– used only for this purpose.) Place it in the center of the table, with all the ingredients in separate dishes surrounding it.
- Bring the broth to a boil and keep warm in the pot in the center of the table.
- Each guest/cook selects a variety of ingredients to add to the communal hot pot. Based on cooking time, meat is usually added first, vegetables just briefly, and noodles at the very end, because they absorb a lot of the broth. Make sure to have extra broth or water on hand to replenish the broth throughout the meal. Adjust the temperature to keep the broth at a gentle simmer. While the food is cooking, each guest/cook makes her own dipping sauce of a raw egg (optional) mixed with the condiments of her choosing.
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