Hot pot, fondue, shabu shabu—whatever you call it, nothing warms the body like leaning over a big bubbling pot of food. During the winter, Chinese families (including mine) break out the little butane camping stoves (how many of us actually camp is another story) and gather around the table to cook paper-thin slices of meat, leafy greens overflowing from baskets, and bouncy fish balls that would easily ricochet off a ping-pong paddle.
Hot potting a big feast requires little prep work, since it’s up to the guests to cook their own food—and you can buy pre-sliced meat at places like T&T, which has a hot-pot section. Everyone cooks what they want; reaches over each other and talks loudly; and leaves with a rich aroma of boiled meats seeped right down to their undershirts. Fun!
But there is a particular method to hot potting in order to really get the most out of it (according to my mom, anyway). During a bone-chilling -10°C Friday night, I took some Grid co-workers to Chinatown’s Celebrity Hot Pot (254 Spadina Ave., at Dundas)—a new all-you-can-eat spot that charges $21.50 per person on busy nights (plus extra for premium ingredients)—to show them how to maximize hot-pot fun time:
Each person should have two pairs of chopsticks (one for handling raw meat, another for eating); a net ladle to scoop out things like dumplings or to use as a barrier to prevent your food item from getting lost in the bottom of the pot; and a regular ladle to get at the delicious broth for noodle soups.
Cold beers will always be the most popular, but non-alcoholic drinks like soy milk are also common. Those who want to go all-out should try some sour prune juice, which is tart, sweet, and a bit herbal. You’ll either love it or hate it—as one of my coworkers puts it, “It tastes like Fisherman’s Friend in a glass.” She had beer.
The dipping sauce
The first thing you do before anything gets cooked is to make a sauce in which to dip your boiled meats and vegetables. Celebrity Hot Pot has a sauce bar where you grab a bowl and create your own blend using soy sauces, chili pastes, sesame oils, and thick sacha paste. There is no wrong combination but, generally, the simpler the better. Add a healthy sprinkling of chopped green onions on top for a bright, grassy crunch. At home, some like to crack a raw egg into the sauce to make it creamier (exercise caution with this, of course) but I don’t find it adds a lot to the texture.
Start at zero with a light vegetable or meat broth, because its flavour will gradually intensify as you cook with it. A more pungent broth like hot and sour, or a very herbal one (cilantro comes to mind) leaves little room for the meats’ fats and oils to add any additional tastes. Also, vegetables like watercress will get their delicate flavours obliterated by the already strong-tasting soup. You want to reach Flavourtown by an easy scenic drive, not via catapult with a jet pack strapped to your back.
Whenever my family did hot pot, we always cooked the ingredients in the following order. (There’s a method to it, I swear.)
1. Dumplings, meat balls, daikon, winter melon
2. Quick-cooking meats like thinly sliced beef, lamb, pork, sausages, and fake-crab
3. Shrimp, squid, mussels
4. Mushrooms and tofu
5. Noodles, vegetables, sprouts
Dumplings and meatballs go in first since they don’t require much cooking time (they’re done as soon as they float to the top) or a watchful eye (go finish loading up on sauces). Daikon and winter melon take longer to cook, so put them into the pot early.
You’re probably starving (that’s why you do hot pot in the first place), so quick-cooking meats like rare beef will satisfy initial hunger pangs. Also, the fats from the meat inject lots of salty flavour into the pot. Shrimp shells also add a rich seafood taste to the broth and turns it into a milky pink colour. If there’s too much fat and oil in the broth, simply skim it off with a ladle.
By now, the once-light broth is brimming with savoury meaty and seafood flavours. This is when you assemble a noodle bowl. Cook mushrooms (enoki and oyster are the most common) and tofu first, as they require a bit more time. When they’re done, take them out to make way for noodles. Finally, toss in handfuls of veggies like watercress, bok choy, and lettuce for a minute to slightly cook them. Be sure to ladle some of that broth that’s been simmering away with heaps of ingredients into the bowl.
Do you have your own hot-pot tips? Share them in the comments.—Karon Liu