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Chrysantheum Fire Pot

by Wonona Wong Chang

Equipment and Techniques

Spring Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(1) page(s): 18, 21, and 15

This year, snow has arrived sooner than anyone expected in the East or the Midwest, and the weather has been colder than usual. As I visited the local Chinese grocery (Jenny Wu's Pan Asia in Parsippany NJ), many customers were asking for thinly sliced chicken, beef, and lamb, and also for fish fillets, fishballs, and fresh shrimp. For vegetables, they were mostly buying Chinese and Napa cabbages. All of these ingredients are often used in the preparation of an evening meal using the fire pot, known as ho go.

The fire pot is a very special utensil; it comes in many sizes and shapes, and is generally made of brass, aluminum, or stainless steel. Most of them measure about 15 or 16 inches in diameter and have a source of heat in the center of it for cooking the soup and the other ingredients. Old-fashioned ones are made of brass and feature a metal chimney in the center. They are shaped like a big hollow donut that sits on a grate with an opening in the bottom for the removal of ashes. Burning charcoal is fed into the chimney of the fire pot which is also the inner wall of the donut. Hot soup is placed in this donut that surrounds the chimney. When the soup is boiling, ingredients are added to it for cooking. A cover that fits around the chimney and over the donut is used to facilitate the boiling of the soup, and to conserve energy.

The formation of poisonous carbon monoxide from combustion of charcoal, the need of frequently feeding the charcoal, and problems involving cleanliness has made newer fire pots safer and more popular. These use electricity or propane gas as their heat source. They are safer, cleaner to use, and easier to control.

One of the new fire pots is called Ying Yang Fire Pot. The soup container is round and made of stainless steel. It has a partition that separates it into two compartments and sits on a square stove heated by propane gas. One compartment is for the clear soup, the other can be used to store soup spiked with hot pepper seasonings such as sate sauce or hot pepper oil. Electric frying pans are also quite suitable. They are often made of aluminum, using one three inches deep and equipped with a tight cover works very well.

The Mandarin term for serving fire pot for dinner is chi ho go and in Cantonese, it is ju hua ho go. The name originates from the Chinese practice of sprinkling fresh white chrysanthemum petals over the food served in the fire pot. This imparts refreshing flavor to the soup.

Around 250 B.C. in the Jin Dynasty, the Taoist monk Ge Hung, believed that soaking chrysanthemum flowers in rice wine for one year would give the person who drank this mixture good health and long life. In the Tang Dynasty (600 - 900 A.D.), Buddhist monks served chrysanthemum flower tea in their temples. The well-known poet Su Dung Po, who lived during the Sung Dynasty (900 - 1280 A.D.), described how to appreciate chrysanthemums. He wrote that one should "eat the shoots in the spring, leaves in the summer, flowers in the fall, and roots in the winter." Obviously, eating chrysanthemum flowers has been well-documented; the Chinese have been doing it for 2,000-plus years.

One of my favorite drinks is to make a mix of dried chrysanthemum flowers (available in any Chinese grocer) with Jasmine tea leaves or with any other Chinese green tea leaves. This tea is most refreshing; it's taste and fragrance is unbelievable.

According to some, the name Chrysanthemum Fire Pot may come from an old-style fire pot which had eight compartments in the donut-shaped vessel. After surrounding the fire pot with dishes of raw and assorted sliced meats, fresh eggs in the shell, and raw vegetables, the meal was ready for cooking. With eight people sitting around a table, each could have their own private cooking compartment in which they could cook their own combination of meat and vegetables; they could even poach an egg in their soup, should they so desire.

When using fire pots without compartments, people occasionally fish out food that others put in. However, since the meal is a big happy affair, and there is always plenty to go around, it is of no consequence.

A fire pot meal can be served at all times and for any occasion. I remember once I was invited to a friend's birthday party in my home town of Medan in Sumatra. I walked into the dining room and it was a sight to behold. There were three generations sitting around the table with an old-fashioned fire pot in the middle. The ingredients were arranged around it so artistically that the dining room table looked as if it were a giant chrysanthemum flower.

When I walked in, the soup stock was bubbling in the charcoal-burning fire pot. I seated myself and the host signaled us all to start the meal. We picked up the meat of our choice from the dishes around us, and with bamboo chopsticks held them briefly in the boiling soup. We then proceeded to dip the meat in a tasty sauce we had mixed ourselves just before we bagan to cook our food. The meal was delicious and the experience unforgettable.

In Medan, the temperature was very hot and even with an oscillating fan to cool us, we were all dripping wet with perspiration. Nonetheless, we still enjoyed it. In these snowy days in the United States, such a meal would be perfect for any occasion.

The Swa Yang Ro or traditional Mongolian fire pot, is loved in northern China where the winter is bitter cold and many people do not have central heating. Lamb is raised on Mongolian grasslands, the price is reasonable, and the mutton is very tender. Chinese people believe lamb is easy to digest and beneficial to the circulatory system, and will give extra warmth.

So that you can try your hand at fire pot cookery, I have prepared two recipes for your enjoyment. There are many others or you can invent your own. Enjoy them both!
Chrysanthemum Fire Pot
1/2 pound flank steak
1/2 pound chicken breast
1/2 pound lean pork
1/2 pound flounder filet
30 large shrimp
2 ounces cellophane noodles
2 packages instant noodles
1/2 pound Chinese celery or Napa cabbage
1/2 pound young Shanghai cabbage
8 eggs (optional)
2 quarts chicken broth
1 white chrysanthemum flower (optional, but be sure to select a flower that has not been sprayed with insecticide)
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions
1/2 cup minced Chinese parsley (cilantro)
2 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
3 Tablespoons sesame paste mixed with two tablespoons water
1/2 cup light soy sauce
1/4 cup rice wine
2 Tablespoons chili oil or sate sauce or both
1. Freeze meats and then slice them very thinly when only partially defrosted. Then cut the slices into two inch square pieces.
2. Cut fish fillets into one inch by two inch by half-inch slices.
3. Arrange meats, fish, and shrimp attractively on one or more platters.
4. Soak the cellophane noodles in hot water until soft. Drain and place on a dish.
5. Wash and clean the vegetables, cut them into bite-sized pieces and arrange on one or two plates.
6. Set the dipping ingredients in bowls; let each person mix their own dipping combination. Some people put a raw egg into their dipping sauce.
7. Remove the petals from the flower and sprinkle them on the soup just before sitting down to eat.
8. Now each person chooses their own meat or seafood, and using their bamboo chop sticks, holds it in the hot stock until cooked to their own desired doneness. Once cooked, it is dipped it into one's own bowl of dipping sauce and consumed. The same is done with the vegetables. Add additional soup stock if/as needed, and at the end put all the noodles into the soup, let it return to the boil, and serve the soup at the meal's end.
Note 1: Another way of serving this is to put the vegetables into the stock, cover the pot and allow them to lightly cook. Then each person can fish out what they like and serve themselves.
Note 2: The above ingredient list is to give you ideas, this meal is very flexible, other items can be substituted, the amount and variety at the discretion of the hostess, who is only limited by imagination and creativity.
Mongolian Fire Pot
3 quarts chicken broth
2 to 3 pounds lamb tenderloin, partially frozen
6 squares frozen bean curd
1 and 1/2 pounds Chinese celery cabbage
4 ounces cellophane noodles
4 Tablespoons sesame paste
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 Tablespoons chili sauce
1/2 cup rice wine or dry sherry
8 squares fermented bean curd
4 Tablespoons leek flower paste (jo hua jiang) or chopped fresh garlic
2 tablespoons sugar
1 ounce minced Chinese parsley (cilantro)
4 scallions
1. Slice the lamb paper thin then cut into two-inch squares and set out attractively on one or two platters.
2. Wash and cut vegetables into bite-sized pieces and put on plates.
3. Cut each defrosted bean curd square into eight pieces and place them in a bowl.
4. Soak the noodles in hot water until soft, drain and put into bowls.
5. Put chopped scallions and parsley in separate bowls; do likewise with the fermented bean curd.
6. Arrange platters around the fire pot filled with boiling soup. Cook and eat as are all fire pots.

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