Saturday, February 6, 2010

Week #23 Chinese Hot Pot

Want to know how to put fondue to shame? Introduce Chinese hot pot!

Our friends, Grace and Bob, invited a group of us to their home to experience this fixture of Grace's childhood. As a Chinese-American, she says this was one of her favorite meals growing up, and she was eager to share the experience with the rest of us. Oh happy, lucky day!
We arrived to find four broths bubbling on the table in two divided pots: chicken, vegetable, shrimp and spicy fish. Plates scattered about the table contained raw beef, pork, scallops, salmon belly and shrimp, along with cubes of tofu, fish balls, shrimp balls and fish and tofu balls, several types of mushrooms and Chinese cabbage.
 In front of Himself is a plate of thinly sliced beef and pork. To his right is a platter of pot stickers and tofu.
Balls! The sculpted looking ones at the top are a combination of fish & tofu; the pink ones in the center are shrimp and the white ones at the bottom are fish.
 Enoki, boletus and shiitake mushrooms each have their own texture and add their distinctive flavors to the broth as well.

 With Chinese Hot Pot you select what you want to eat, drop it into the broth of your choice, pull it out when you think it's done and chow down. But after awhile you're not sure what you're fishing out of the broth or who dropped it in. That's just fine, though, because we all got plenty and it was all tasty. I did try to take care with the salmon belly, scallops and shrimp, to be sure they didn't overcook. I babysat them the best I could amidst the general confusion and fun that results from 10 people all simultaneously cooking and reaching and eating and talking around the table.

Oh, and yes, the oysters! I'm sorry I didn't shoot a close up of them (that's a hazard of having too much fun when you're trying to document something). Those were the biggest, most beautiful oysters I've ever seen in my life. When Grace walked in and set down the dishes of salmon belly and oysters, I knew we were truly amongst the rank of the elect.
  My bowl, with some pork, a fish and tofu ball, a scallop and a piece of tofu, along with a tangle of noodles fresh out of the broth. The bits of tomato and cilantro were already in the broth, as each is quite flavorful before the cooking begins.
 These are just a few of the dipping sauces and ingredients from which dipping sauces were made. All have different flavors and run the gamut of heat from tame to "I can't feel my lips!" But nothing disappointed.

The idea is that after eating all the meat, seafood and veggies, you throw noodles into the broth and have a bowl of soup and noodles to finish the meal. But here's the kicker, something Grace didn't tell us until we were too full to do anything about it: All the time we were tossing meat, and fish and veggies into the broth and cooking and eating, that broth was becoming so unbelievably rich and flavorful as to constitute some sort of drinkable ambrosia, barely legal for it to be in the possession of mere mortals. She says the best breakfast is a bowl of that super-rich broth with some noodles thrown in. It's certainly her kids' favorite.
So here we are, all happily making the family's breakfast without even knowing it. Was that the point, Grace? To invite over a group of people and feed them really well, just so you could get some exquisite broth out of the deal?! Okay, I guess that's a fair trade. But be advised, Girlfriend: If I ever see you at the store buying all this stuff, I'm showing up at your house the next morning, because I figure there's going to be a seriously good breakfast awaiting me!
Grace asked me to bring a Chinese dessert, laughing to herself because she knew full well that the Chinese don't eat dessert, not very often, anyway. But I had fun with it, recalling every Chinese buffet I'd ever seen. There's always fresh fruit, usually melon, and an almond gelatin, which my pal Mark claims is an abomination on account of the unnaturalness of gelatin that looks milky and tastes like almond. He objects to the mouth-feel, too. "I have texture issues," he once told me with a shudder. For authenticity, I even made it with agar agar, a seaweed-based gelatin that's popular amongst the vegan crowd. Everyone took a bite just to give it a try, or so as not to hurt my feelings, although I'd already assured them that my feelings wouldn't be hurt if they didn't eat it. A couple of people liked it okay. One person actually liked it well enough to carry some home with him for later. I probably won't make it again, but I'm glad to have tried it and to have had the experience of working with agar agar.

We feasted grandly, but after all that food we didn't feel stuffed or overindulged, because it was lean, healthy stuff. No reaching for the antacids afterward!

Himself and I are eager to do Chinese hot pot ourselves now. Grace said they stopped at 99 Ranch Market and bought all the meats, seafoods and assorted items pre-prepared and ready to drop into the pot. That means the prep was all done--all they had to do to get ready for a dinner party was to tidy up the house, set the table and make some broth.

To eat hot pot alone would be about as much fun as watching a DVD of Rocky Horror Picture Show at home all by yourself. This is social food. Make a lot of broth, buy extra ingredients and invite people over, or ask them to bring something to add in. I brought regrettable but fun dessert. Wes brought his portable bar and mixed cocktails that paired well with the meal. It was a great feast and a great evening. And certainly a memorable one.

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