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Hot Pot Cookery

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Equipment and Techniques

Winter Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(4) page(s): 11 and 12


All Asian countries have dishes cooked at the table in what westerners might call a chafing dish. There are two main chafing dish types of equipment in China. One is a heat-proof bowl of any material filled with boiling liquid and other ingredients, set on a heat source, and placed at the table. This is often a sand pot. The other is a special pot, a stove with chimney and cooking vessel. Its heat source is a grate at the bottom of the chimney. In Volume 7(3) on pages 7 and 8, sand pot cookery was discussed. Some of those pots, and the dishes made in them, can and do come to the table to be finished there. The food in them is put on rice or in an individual soup bowl, then eaten.

An ordinary bowl or pot with foods cooked at the table is a sort of a keng or stove, a pot or bowl placed over a heat source on the table. Many cultures have dishes cooked in such a device at the table. These containers are usually round, made of stone, ceramic or metal, and they sit directly over a heat source. In ancient China, these dishes were cooked over charcoal as their heat source. In the United States and around the world, people now use Sterno, alcohol, or electricity for their table-side heat source because they are cleaner and safer; China now does, too.

The origins of cookery where diners cook and eat their foods directly from a container over the fire are ancient. To eat them at the table, boiled or grilled, are said to have their beginnings with Kublai Khan. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368 CE), he and his Mongol brethren prepared food, boiling large pieces of meat on the bone. When away from home, they used their shields to grill thin slices of meat or chunks of meat on sticks or swords. Grilling of meat on metal had origins in that dynasty. Thus grilled meats, particularly thinly sliced meats, and boiled or grilled at the table took the names of the Mongolian barbecue or the Mongolian hot pot, also written as hotpot.

The pot detailed in this issue is no relative to the sand pot, the chafing dish, or the cooking container called the Mongolian or Genghis Khan grill. It is quite different. It is made out of metal and has a special shape. It has alternately been called a fire pot, a hot pot, a Mongolian pot, a chrysanthemum pot, a steamboat, Chinese chafing chimney cooker, and other names including 'hit-the-side stove,' a literal translation from one of its Chinese names, which in Chinese, is ta pian lu.

What makes this pot unique is not that it comes to the table, as chafing dishes do, or that foods are cut into bite-size pieces and cooked in its liquid, but that the liquid is sitting in a donut-shaped bowl and that the diner uses chopsticks and a long-handled wire basket to cook their food. They place their foods, a few at a time with either their chopsticks or in the strainer basket, preferably the latter, into the hot liquid to cook.

No matter the name or technique, this type of cooking has ancient roots and yet is reasonably modern; a mixed babe among Chinese cooking methods. Historians used to believe that in China, boiling one's food oneself and then eating it at the table probably began after the Yuan Dynasty. They suggested initial use of a pot on the dinner table as probably in the late 18th century.

The ideas of these historians it that its modern origins might be credited to a Qing emperor, Quianlong (1736 - 1796CE), who was very fond of boiled foods. In his day, records tell us that these foods were prepared using steamboat cooking. Other records tell of a later Qing emperor, Renzongrui, who held a grand banquet in 1796 in the imperial palace: and on that occasion, one thousand five hundred hot pots were used. Now, a recently discovered ancient mural, found in Inner Mongolia, shows three men sitting around a pot that looks remarkably similar to the hot pot or fire pot or whatever you want to call it. This painting shows a container with what appears to be chunks of meat, probably lamb or wild game. Thus, Chinese hot pot cookery has a longer history than once believed, and learning about it is still evolving.

Boiling in liquid at the table and in a hot pot is popular on the eve of the New Year. Some family's have this reunion dish on New Year's night, not its eve. When consumed, it is called weilu or 'surrounding the stove' and is a symbol of family reunion. The family comes home and eats hot pot foods reuniting for an auspicious New Year.

Then or anytime, the dish made in this unusual pot is usually a meal in and of itself. Meat and vegetables are cooked in the same pot, noodles, too. The dish ends with the liquid these foods are cooked in transformed into a delicious soup, the hotpot meal's last course. At fancy or formal meals, but not at a family New Year gathering, this hot pot dish can come after a few stir-fried dishes and a few tantalizing appetizers.

Traditional Chinese hot pots are hearty dishes with many different ingredients. They are cooked in this vessel that looks like an upside-down funnel with a circular belly attached to the funnel or chimney about seven to fifteen inches above the table-top. Inside the lower part of the funnel itself sits a grate or rack where the charcoal is placed. There is an aperture on one side of the lower part of the funnel for adding more charcoal, as needed. There are also small holes providing air for the charcoal to burn; these are near the bottom of the widest end of the funnel.

Imagine this funnel-shaped chimney with a moat-shaped collar suspended around it; that is the collar. It holds a liner where liquid and all that goes into the liquid is cooked. Before people come to the table, the charcoal is ignited and the liner filled with boiling liquid be it water, stock, or a more dense gravy-like sauce. Then the diners are seated and after the toasts, the host begins and all cook their own food.

Thus, a hot pot has three parts: the funnel with exterior bowl attached and sitting a third of the way up the chimney, the liner--usually with two handles that fit into the bowl, and the fire grate. Fire pots must have, and most come with a tray underneath them. We recommend a piece of wood under the tray to protect the table top. We also recommend only using it with windows wide open. Hot pots are usually made of copper or brass, more modern ones are fashioned of aluminum or stainless steel. Silver ones were used in the Imperial palace, iron ones used a couple of generations ago, as well.

Imagine this bubbling hot pot in the cold of winter, the season when they were usually served. Nowadays, you can imagine it in any season because there are seasonal and regional hot pot recipe variations. They range from minimally seasoned to exceptionally piquant. Their contents vary, too, the meat either lamb, beef, pork, chicken, all of the above and more, or none if the recipe is to be vegetarian style.

One popular one is the Beijing Mutton Hot Pot; it can be quite bland. A variation of it, popular in the northeast, is salty with lots of pickled cabbage and pork. Both of these are cooked in pork stock. A Cantonese variety called Chrysanthemum Fire Pot is named after a seasonal flower. It uses a mild sauce and chicken stock. Southwesterners have a piquant variation called Sichuan or Mala Hot Pot. It is cooked in a beef stock and loaded with a variety of peppery seasonings including Sichuan peppercorns, chili peppers, whole black peppercorns, and fermented soy beans. These items are oil-blanched then tossed into the beef stock. In China’s southern heartland, there is a Water-buffalo Hot Pot cooked in water. It is neither bland nor spicy, but flavorful with water-buffalo meat, liver and tripe.

In Lin Yutang’s hometown, when he lived there it was called Amoy, they have a different and time-consuming variation called The Great Pot. The liquid used is chicken stock, long-cooked until thick, with pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, tofu, and shrimp. This particular Amoy Hot Pot is eaten differently; no strainers are used. The host offers pancakes on platters and the thick gravy-type mixture in a hot pot. Diners ladle thick sauce onto a pancake, garnish it with nuts, parsley, slivers of egg, bean sprouts, and more from platters on the table, and then consume the pancake.

Any of the dozens of other variations do not need to be made in a funnel-shaped pot, though they do look lovely in them. Should you want one, do consult with our advertisers who sell them and are experts in their use. Or, just use a large pot or even a fondue pot; the metal ones work best. Be sure it is a pot that goes over a heat source and one that can keep the liquid at a low boil. Remember that each time foods are put into the liquid, the temperature is reduced, so the pot needs to be able to reheat maintaining temperature.

To make a hot pot, prepare the desired stock. Experts with sophisticated palates, in years gone by, would collect spring water to start theirs. When it is ready and the heat source is glowing, pour the stock into the ring-around-the-collar moat. There is an illustration in the hard copy of this issue. Before that, do set everything needed for the diners; that is their place settings and the meat and/or vegetables on platters.

A repeat warning: Homes used to have adequate ventilation, even mud or tile roofs so cooking indoors over charcoal was fine. Today’s well-sealed homes and low ceilings make indoor cooking a challenge. Only use electric hot pots or those that use alcohol or Sterno. Do be sure the room has adequate ventilation. In the past, charcoal gave off poisonous gases; and it uses up the room's oxygen all too quickly. All cooking deposits oil vapors and steam on ceilings, a mite of soot, too, and heat sources on the table need constant vigilance. Have a working fire extinguisher handy, in case something tips over. Or better yet, use an electric hot pot; they are much safer.

Preparing foods for the hot pot requires thin slices of meat and washed and torn or cut medium pieces of greens and other foods. Popular meats are lamb, beef, pork, chicken, various organ meats such as liver, kidney, tripe, tendons, and heart. Accompanying them can be shrimp and other crustaceans, firm-fleshed fish such as monkfish, cuttle fish, and thin slices of geoduck. Popular vegetables are garland chrysanthemum, malabar or plain spinach, bai cai, various cabbages and lettuces, and scallions tied in individual knots. Mushrooms suggested include enoki, bamboo, straw, and pre-cooked shiitake mushrooms. Firm tofu is another suggestion. Some stocks are enhanced with mashed red and white fermented tofu. Some recipes call for red and white tofu, they mean half firm tofu (the white) and half coagulated duck blood (the red).

Place these foods creatively, even artfully on several platters so people need little reaching or passing of foods. Each diner can select the item or items they want to eat, put them into a long-handled wire basket not crowding the food, and into the hot liquid to cook for as long as they like; those who like meats or vegetables less cooked should take them out and test them in a minute or two. Diners can also pick up meat or vegetable with their chopsticks and put them into the boiling liquid, and then await the desired doneness. However, when many people do this, finding ones own is a challenge. Some hosts signal the start of the meal putting in a few pieces of food and inviting guests to take them. At a hot pot dinner, everyone needs to pay attention as foods cook quickly.

Table accompaniments set out before diners arrive are important. They can include bowls with various sauces and vinegars, each with a ceramic spoon, and smaller dishes each with a different spice or condiment and its own tiny spoon. These items work best on one or more small trays to reduce reaching and passing. Individual place settings should include a flat plate, an empty rice bowl to use for the soup at meals end, a pair of chopsticks, and a long-handle wire strainer. For those who have never seen any, they are made of twisted brass wires and have a twisted wire handle about ten inches long. The size of the basket is such that it comfortably holds an egg on its end. If available, a second and smaller bowl per person is valuable. This is to make a sauce mixture with condiments to taste for dipping meats and flavoring them before consumption. It also serves to cool them avoiding burns to tongue and mouth.

Recipes for cooking in a Hot Pot should appear in the next issue.

                                                                                                                                                       
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