The first time we had a hot pot meal was at Tong Yang Restaurant. The girls were still toddlers at the time; my brother and his wife were awaiting the birth of their first child. We enjoyed it so much that Speedy and I started discussing how to set up a hot pot at home. It was going to be complicated. It would entail drilling a hole into the center of the dining table to install a burner that would fit snugly and hide the gas tank underneath. Not doable. No one ruins a hardwood tabletop for a hot pot that wouldn’t be used everyday. Because, let’s face it, although hot pot dining is a lot of fun, doing it everyday for every meal would make it ordinary and boring in no time.
Time passed. We moved to the suburb. Although the hot pot project would get mentioned occasionally, we never seriously considered it again. When the first electric models came out, my objection was having the thing’s electric wire running on top of the table and the floor all the way to the wall where it would be plugged. Not an ideal set-up for a family with young children. Over time, the hot pot project was forgotten. The girls grew up. We moved to our present house.
Then, last week, Speedy asked if I still wanted one. There was a model, he said, powdered by a gas canister — the same kind we use for our kitchen torch. No need to drill a hole on the table. And no electric wire at all. A few days later, I was with him at the DIY store where he saw the hot pot stove. I was not going to give him a chance to change his mind, was I?
Yes, we bought one. And that’s how it looks — a lightweight single burner gas stove with a compartment on one side to house and hide the gas canister. Just open the compartment, drop in the canister, snap the lid shut, secure with the lock and switch on the stove. According to the store where we bought it, the gas canister is good for at least three hours if the heat is kept to a minimum. Nifty little thing. And it’s small enough to use on our round six-seater dining table. We had a delightful hot pot lunch today.
What do you need to set up a home version of the hot pot? The irony in that question does not escape me because there is a presumption there somewhere that restaurant hot pot dining is the original and the norm, and home-style hot pot cooking is a mere version. Not so. Historically, hot pot cooking was done at home. From what I’ve read, the practice originated in China where it has been enjoyed for over a thousand years. Meat was the main ingredient.
Hot pot dining spread to neighboring Asian countries and variations multiplied. Although the cooking method remained the same, the ingredients cooked in the simmering broth and the dipping sauces that went with them varied from one country to the next. It came to be known as nabemono in Japan, shabu-shabu in Taiwan, lau in Vietnam and Thai suki in Thailand. Today, food that can be cooked in the hot pot can be just about anything — meat, poultry, seafood, dumplings, vegetables, mushrooms, eggs…
There is no hot pot recipe then? Of course, there isn’t. Hot pot is NOT a dish; it is a cooking method and a dining style.
Hot pot cooking means cooking small pieces of food in broth that is kept simmering on the table all throughout the meal. Meat is cut very thinly so that it gets fully cooked in a matter of minutes. Vegetables, tofu, seafood and other ingredients are cut into bite-size pieces so that they can be fished out easily from the broth and dropped directly into individual bowls.
Hot pot dining means each person chooses which ingredients he likes, picks them up from an array of serving plates, drops them into the hot broth then retrieves them when they’re done. The trick, of course, is to cook food in small amounts so that they don’t get cold before they are eaten. Additionally, as the meal progresses, and as more food gets cooked, the broth becomes tastier and tastier.
Now, going back to the question that hasn’t been answered… What do you need to set up a home version of the hot pot?
1. The hot pot itself.
2. Broth. We prefer homemade. Ideally, the broth must be boiled on a regular stove before the pot is moved to the hot pot stove. The gas canister has only so much life in it and it’s best to keep the heat low and the broth at simmering point. A tip: have extra broth for refills.
3. The food to be cooked in the broth. Today, we had sukiyaki-cut beef, mushrooms, vegetable dumplings, rice noodles, spinach, bok choy, corn and assorted vegetarian balls.
4. A dipping sauce or a variety of dipping sauces. Whatever you prefer, really. Initially, I prepared a bowl of soy sauce and a bowl of chili sauce but Sam came up with something better ten minutes into the meal — garlic and black bean sauce.
5. Chopsticks (related: chopsticks etiquette and taboos) for those adept at using them. For those who are not, slotted ladles are recommended.
6. A soup ladle to get some of that delicious broth into your bowl.
Next time, we’ll have seafood instead of meat. Salmon, mussels, scallops (if we can find good ones)… And, of course, the vegetarian components for vegetarian Sam.