Taiwanese Hot Pot
For many Americans, holidays brings to mind traditional meals including ham, roast turkey, gingerbread houses and dozens of cookies. These are definitely part of my Taiwanese-American family’s holiday repertoire. But as with other American customs and holidays, my family also included distinctively Asian food in our celebrations. During holidays and other special occasions, my family would break out an electric skillet and prepare for a meal of what my mother Americanized for us as “tabletop cooking.” I didn’t know until years later that this already had an English name, hot pot. It is still a meal my family enjoys when we get together, though now that my parents are getting less enthusiastic about all the prep work, we are more likely to enjoy this communal meal at a restaurant than at home.
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. This is probably a myth, as hot pot 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. Similar versions are Japanese shabu-shabu and what is called Steamboat in Singapore and Malaysia.
Hot pot is basically a meal of 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.
The most distinctive variation of hot pot is served in Southwestern China, in Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. I worked for some time in Sichuan, and during my first week there was treated to the local specialty, Ma-La (numb-spicy) hot pot. 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 also memorable. I was presented with a platter of interesting animal parts including 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 still couldn’t manage to try them. 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.
Thankfully, you don’t need exotic ingredients to enjoy hot pot cooking. My favorite aspect of eating hot pot is neither 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.
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Taiwanese Hot Pot
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
A variety of Chinese greens, chopped (I like whole leaf spinach and Napa cabbage in my hotpot)
Cubed taro root
Sliced lotus root
Noodles, such as udon, egg noodles, mung bean noodles, rice noodles
Broth, chicken or pork are used most commonly
Condiments: Sa Cha sauce, soy sauce, minced garlic, chilies or chili sauce, diced cilantro, chopped scallions, raw eggs for stirring into the sauce
Traditionally, a large wok over hot coals.
Modern home cooks can use a large, covered electric skillet. (My parents still use the covered electric skillet they received for a wedding gift in 1967– used only for this purpose.)
Bring the broth to a boil.
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 mixed with the condiments of her choosing.
Linda Shiue is a doctor and food writer who believes in the healing power of chicken soup. You can read about more of her food and travel adventures at spiceboxtravels.com and follow her on Twitter @spiceboxtravels. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Asia Magazine, The New York Times, andRemedy Quarterly.