Monday, Mar 27, 2017, 8:36 PM CST – China

Outside In

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot!

During my first month in China, my friends and I were sitting in a restaurant, painstakingly making our way through the menu, translating item by item. I hadn’t yet instituted my current ordering technique: covering my eyes, pointing at a dish, checking there are no brains, heart or feet involved, and hoping it tastes good (works nine times out of 10). I found a section of the menu called huo guo. My cavewoman instincts kicked in – it literally translated as “fire pot,” I had to order it!

Excuse my naivete. Of course I now know what “hotpot” is, but I was new to authentic Chinese cuisine. A pot of boiling water was placed on a gas burner in the center of the table. My dining partners and I exchanged confused looks. The waiter noticed and motioned to the far corner of the restaurant where a buffet-style assortment of wafer thin shredded meats, chunks of fish, vegetables, herbs, noodles, dumplings and sauces were laid out and waiting for us. We quickly realized that the concept of hotpot is really very simple. You handle things yourself, and, depending on what you choose, you’ll be ready to eat dinner in anything from a couple of seconds to, at most, a few minutes.

Hotpot has a muddled history, with possible antecedents popping up in Mongolia and what is today Chongqing as early as the Shang period (16th-11th century BC). Today, however, as most Chinese will tell you, the true hotpot experience awaits in Sichuan. Don’t expect mellow and simple broths. A Sichuan ma la (numbing and spicy) hotpot is lethally spiced with the region’s infamous chili peppers, chili flakes, Sichuan peppercorns, and chili powders and oils. Due to the cold but moist winters in this area of China, eating very spicy foods is said to cleanse the body of excess moisture by working up a sweat. Hotpot certainly does that!

This iconic dish, wherever you’re dining, can get as complicated as you like. Broths are meat-, fish- or vegetable-based. Sauces can vary from dark and soy-based, to fragrant coriander paste, to minced ginger, all the way down to the basic sesame paste. A sprinkling of fresh red chili is always welcome.

The simplicity of hotpot doesn’t match its usual price tag, with restaurants generally charging 60-120 yuan (US$9-18) per head, pricey in China, with top whack charged even for a modest spread. Cheapskates can relax, however, as this is one of the easier dishes to create at home. Chinese supermarkets sell a variety of packaged broth mixes, but a decent result can be obtained with a crockpot of boiling, salted water flavored with garlic cloves and a shredded leek.

The Chinese really know their mushrooms, and hotpot is a great way to try the full range. A great personal find were jinzhengu – enoki or “golden needle” mushrooms. Individually thin and long, they grow together in diminutive bundles of tender protein, cook in a minute and have a delightfully subtle flavor and wonderfully robust texture. In China, these little beasts are also known by another name, “see you tomorrow,” owing to the fact that despite being really tasty, they are tricky to digest. Don’t think too much about that!

A less than great discovery I made was a vegetable that looked suspiciously like a knobbly cucumber. Don’t be fooled into expecting a refreshing and watery taste. Taking a bite out of raw kugua, or “bitter gourd,” a wildly popular addition to cuisines from Korea to Vietnam, was a rookie error – the clue is in the name, as this is without doubt one of the most bitter flavors out there. Even when tossed in a stir fry, this vegetable retains that bitterness. Indeed, it is prized for that very reason – bitter equals healthy in the Chinese eat-yourself-well mindset. Diced and thrown into hot broth, however, long simmering produces a surprisingly sweet and mellow version of this curious foodstuff.

Hotpot can work magic on even the most dubious ingredients, but is also a test of stamina, and a sensory smorgasbord. But when you and your pals are huddled round a table, all watery-eyed and numb-tongued, it’s an experience best shared – especially in the deep midwinter.

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