My New Obsession: Hot Pot aka, The Fon-Stew

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

[picture courtesy of wikipedia]
If you haven't had the absolute pleasure of dining Hot Pot Style, I want you to stop reading this blog right now, open a new browser window, google "hot pot (insert your current residence)" and locate your nearest hot pot restaurant. Then write the location down, and come back to read this blog.

I'll wait for you...



Ok. Trust me you will thank me for this.

Hot pot is a traditional Chinese quick-cooking method that's one part cheeseless fondue and one part stew. I like to call it Fon-Stew. Basically you are served a boiling hot pot of mildly flavored broth that sits traditionally in a clay pot atop a stove. At restaurants you'll get most likely a steel pot on a portable gas range. Then you choose your proteins -- among them including extremely thinly sliced pork, chicken, and beef, shrimp -- along with the usual suspects -- white fish fillets cut bite-sized, a huge heap of rice noodles (think pho noodles), bean sprouts, lots and lots and lots of shredded chinese cabbage, wood ear mushrooms, and fishballs. I'm still a little fuzzy on what exactly constitutes a fishball per se, but they're tasty so I'm not going to ask.

Everything is slid over next to your boiling pot of goodness, and then you're given two ladles -- one with holes in it and one without. And of course, a sturdy pair of chopsticks. The idea is you cook your food in the broth, and as more and more ingredients are added, over time the broth itself gets flavored so by the time you're done eating the food items, you've also made yourself soup to drink to wash it all down.

This method of quick-cooking it is said dates back to Mongolian times where the Mongolian armies would build a fire, turn their helmets over, and cook stew like this right in the open flame using meats and other foods they could find. It's an interesting concept and one I find fascinating. And rather tasty.

Traditional accompaniments to this meal of meals vary as vastly as the items you can cook in the stew, but most often you'll find simply chili sauce to adjust for spiciness factor and hoisin sauce for the meats. You can flavor your soup outright with these, but it's best to place in your small bowl and eat with the foods as they cook, thereby allowing yourself the ability to adjust seasoning to suit the food. For example, why ruin a perfectly cooked delicate piece of fish with hoisin sauce when you don't have to? It goes much better with the pork!

My favorite part: you can get this spicy as hell. Traditionally, especially in the Chinese province of Szechuan, these hot pots are served bubbling hot just loaded with chili peppers. You can get super mild with zero peppers (if you're a pussy) or just loaded with spicy peppers to the point where you are SWEATING. It's hurting so good. And nothing will make that hut go away but more hot pot. It becomes a frenzied race, with each bite getting you closer to a chili nirvana until you're literally high on the pepper heat. It's intense.

This style of eating is designed to be your appetizer, main course, side dish, and dessert all in one. It is meant to be eaten over the course of a couple of hours, or even longer, slowly working your way through the various foods. And then at the end, you drink the flavorful broth.

Some Hot Pot Etiquette notes for you:

  • begin with the Needs Longer To Cook items -- this includes the fishballs, cabbage, noodles, mushrooms, and any other tougher vegetable they may serve you
  • although thinly sliced and designed to cook quickly, remember that pork and chicken need to be fully cooked to avoid illness, so cook those at least 3 minutes, preferably 5; beef can literally go in and out of the soup in 30 seconds
  • it's polite to use the ladles to put the stuff in and out, especially if you're eating with other people not in your family; so use the ladle with the holes in it to load up with raw foods and then gently place in the soup, then use it again to serve yourself back out of the soup
  • the ladle without the holes is for the soup broth at the end -- serve yourself some as you would any soup
  • it is considered insulting to eat rice while consuming hot pot
  • you must finish everything as it is considered an insult to waste any of the food, so come hungry and don't over-order anything! keep in mind they give a lot of "basic" foods like the noodles, veggies, and fish so don't go nuts with the proteins or come with friends as your back up

Here's a cheat sheet for how long things take to cook for the more readily available hot pot ingredients:

Fishballs -- 15 minutes
Other meatballs or other...balls -- 15 minutes
Cabbage, mushrooms, other variations thereof -- 10 minutes
Noodles -- 10-15 minutes for nice soft noodles
Tripe -- 15 minutes
Beef -- 1-2 minutes
Pork and Chicken -- 3-5 minutes
Fish -- 5 minutes
Shrimp -- depending on size, go by the color instead -- when they turn bright orange
Squash or other tougher root vegetable -- 15 min+
Onion/Scallion -- 1 minute but you may want to leave it in the duration of the soup so as to flavor it

Is this meal kid-friendly? Yes, if you have adventurous eaters who can handle the wait time for the stuff to cook.

If you live in the Redmond or Seattle area, you must try Spicy Talk Bistro in downtown Redmond. Totally legit hot pot place filled with local China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong transplants. We were literally the only white people there so you know it's good! And they make THE BEST house-made noodles you've had in your life. Great fried rice for the kids and an impressive display of other traditional dishes that thankfully take a departure from the beef with broccoli area. I can't wait to try their whole grilled fish with black bean sauce and other house specialties. I just get seduced by the hot pot every time!


degarrido said...

I love cooking at home as much as you, but getting tips on great dining out ideas is always welcome. I used to frequent a restaurant in Carmel that served this dish and will now look for one in San Jose. sis might be moving back to Seattle area, so we will def check our your recommendation. TX!

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