Simmering Hotpots

Eating a hotpot dinner and feeling beads of sweat trickling down my back on a Taiwanese hot and humid summer night comes to mind as I reflect on family, home and food. The one perennial meal that seems to resist explanation even as light bulbs condensate from the humidity and three cold showers are taken per day is the hotpot, firepot or the "Asian fondue". Though fondues and hotpots both relish in the concept of tabletop cooking, the wine and cheese version stops short at lactose intolerant Asia. The Chinese version offers a smokestack packed with charcoal in the center awaking the residing eight year old pyromaniac as the adult me refrains from throwing things into the fire. Meanwhile, the minimalist Japanese suyikaki using only konbu seaweed and a few slices of ginger celebrates and unmasks natural taste of meats and vegetables. The hotpot evening is christened with the clank of a pair of extra long chopsticks adding in cooking oil to fry ginger, shallots, and green onions to golden brown. No one in my family so far has volunteered to be a charcoal lackey, so we opt for a portable tabletop stove that uses a neat and simple canister of gas doubling as a game of Russian roulette when being lit. My mother miraculously brings up for the first time each time the news report fifteen years ago of the gas stovetop that blew up during some family hotpot dinner. The only difference is the recount of casualties varied from a small family to a small continent. After the flavor of the mixture is extracted into the oil, chicken stock is added before tossing in slower cooking cabbage, napa, daikon, bamboo shoots and fried taro root. Friends ask why I seldom cook anything Asian. I give them factors about lack of ingredients, condiments or quote the difference of stove temperatures. The reason really is the aversion I’ve developed from endlessly chopping, slicing, dicing, and mincing. I should petition for a grant to study the Asian obsession with cutting. Lamb, pork, chicken, and beef are sliced to the absolute thinnest transparency by semi-freezing to allow minimal cooking time with just a quick back and forth run of chopsticks. Fish is cut into large squares or small slivers species dependent. Green onions must be sliced lengthwise in a certain manner and soaked in iced water to curl into gift packaging ribbons. If the petition fails, I propose to study the obsession with freshness. Clams are left intact as are oysters and other shellfish. The fish’s head is sometimes mounted upright on the plate smiling at everyone to confirm its own freshness. Though nothing is usually alive, there was that hotpot lunch occasion with my sister. Instead of shrimp simply blankly staring back they suddenly danced alive. The waiter anesthetized the shrimp in a glass of ice after she screamed and flailed her arms. Iced or not, she was traumatized and done with shrimp the rest of lunch. As the hotpot starts, accompanying sauces are customized to personal moods and tastes. Cleansing light Japanese citrus ponzu sauce highlights subtle flavors of fish and octopus while fiery hot Malaysian satay with fresh garlic, onions, ground peanuts, cilantro and a large raw egg yolk heats up the palate. Lamb, duck and other gamey meats compliment the thick and hearty sesame and garlic sauce. The combined taste from the broth and the sauce is soaked up by sponge ingredients such as bamboo inner sheaths that give a spongy soft yet crunchy texture. A favorite is what I dub the Ice Cavetofu. It shares a fate much like that unfortunate frozen primordial man in the Alps. He was mindfully resting in his nice frozen tomb until some snooping explorer chucked him on a sled down the slopes. Freezing and unfreezing tofu creates a porous sponge that’s perfect for hotpot. Other hotpot items include plain tofu and other items having little or no taste such as jellyfish, sea cucumber, baby octopi and some vegetables. The appreciation is found in contrast between different textures. This “taste-of-no-taste” is a state of mind that narrows the gap to fulfill my ambition as a Jedi hotpot master. The hues, shapes, and textures of meats and vegetables create a mosaic of shifting colors under a symphony of clicking chopsticks, yelling grandmothers and crackling music on the radio. As frowning clams smile after their hot bath, salmon turn to rosy pink. Subdued grey shrimp cheer up and turn glowing orange-red and white translucent mung bean noodles clear to transparency. The hotpot brings family together to celebrate spending hours eating together and telling stories as the hotpot simmers away. Eat well. Eat often. Buen provecho!