Friends, Family and a Feast: A Hot Pot How-To

Simmering hot pot i i

Beef, mushrooms, tofu, spinach, cabbage and shrimp simmer in this Chinese hot pot. Maureen Pao, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Maureen Pao, NPR
Simmering hot pot

Beef, mushrooms, tofu, spinach, cabbage and shrimp simmer in this Chinese hot pot.

Maureen Pao, NPR

About the Author

Maureen Pao is an associate producer at NPR.org, where she helps edit Kitchen Window. Listen her commentary on Chinese New Year and cooking for her parents.

Dipping sauces i i

After cleaning and cutting the meats and vegetables, the only thing left to do is concoct a dipping sauce. Some common ingredients are soy sauce (clockwise from top left); cilantro, chili peppers, shallots and garlic; sesame oil and Chinese barbecue sauce (see below). Maureen Pao, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Maureen Pao, NPR
Dipping sauces

After cleaning and cutting the meats and vegetables, the only thing left to do is concoct a dipping sauce. Some common ingredients are soy sauce (clockwise from top left); cilantro, chili peppers, shallots and garlic; sesame oil and Chinese barbecue sauce (see below).

Maureen Pao, NPR
Sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and Chinese barbecue sauce i i

Soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame paste, sesame oil and Chinese barbecue sauce, also known as shacha (Bull Head brand is pictured here, front) are some of the ingredients you can use in your dipping sauce. Maureen Pao, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Maureen Pao, NPR
Sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and Chinese barbecue sauce

Soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame paste, sesame oil and Chinese barbecue sauce, also known as shacha (Bull Head brand is pictured here, front) are some of the ingredients you can use in your dipping sauce.

Maureen Pao, NPR

The Mysteries of 'Bullhead'

In our family, three ingredients reign supreme for hot pot dipping sauce: soy sauce, sesame oil and Bull Head Barbecue Sauce. In Chinese, it's called shacha, or "sandy tea," sauce. (Sometimes it's referred to as "satay," but it really doesn't resemble the Southeast Asian, peanut-based sauce we associate with satay.)

We always just called shacha "bullhead." As a girl, I wondered, with a bit of discomfort, why it was called "bullhead." It wasn't until later that I realized it was the brand name, not a description of what was inside.

What's inside? Not sand or tea, but, according to the label, soybean oil, garlic, shallots, chili, spice, brill fish, dry shrimp, salt. I thought about making it from scratch. My mother thought I was crazy, and in the end, as always, she was right.

When the weather is dreary and cold, there's nothing better than cooking something that heats up the house and fills it with fragrant aromas — unless it's someone else doing the cooking.

That's why the Chinese dish huoguo is perfect for winter entertaining. Even if you're a neophyte Chinese cook, hot pot will be a cinch. One of its many beauties lies in its simplicity.

Also known as Chinese fondue – or by its literal translation, fire pot — huoguo is a colorful array of meats, seafood, vegetables, bean curd and noodles that each diner chooses from and dips in a communal pot of simmering liquid. It's a convivial activity, enjoyed by friends and families drawn together by a delicious, healthful meal in which the cooking is spread among many.

If you need an excuse to party, we're in the middle of traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, which began Feb. 18 and run until March 4.

It's thought that hot pot originated in Mongolia (it's easy to imagine gathering around a coal fire in that cold and wind-swept region). In this version, mutton is the main meat. Between the 7th and 10th centuries, the technique spread to Tang Dynasty China.

Today, there are nearly as many types of hot pot as there are regional dialects in China. My friend John, a one-man hot pot encyclopedia, can easily rattle off eight different kinds, among them: mala huoguo, which features a numbingly spicy broth; suancai yu huogou, consisting of pickled greens with fish; an all wild mushroom hot pot, soft shell turtle hot pot, and even a yak version in far Western China.

This may sound exotic. But I ate hot pot growing up in the 1970s and '80s in South Carolina, and if my mother and father could find enough ingredients there to prepare the gut-busting hot pot meals we had at our house, you can find them anywhere.

If you live in warmer climes, fear not. My hot pot-loving little sister, who lives with her family in Florida, simply cranks up the air-conditioning to enjoy huoguo year-round.

Instead of a butane burner or brazier filled with charcoal, you can use a more convenient (and much easier to find) electric frying pan or wok. Or just search online where a variety of Chinese hot pots are for sale.

The staples for a satisfying hot pot experience are available at most large grocery stores: beef sliced paper-thin (ask the butcher to do it; it's difficult for mere mortals to do at home), shrimp, spinach, button mushrooms, Napa or other cabbage, and firm tofu.

There are some slightly more exotic items you can get at any Asian market and some upscale supermarkets: shiitake, enokitake (or enoki mushrooms) and other fungi; different kinds of specialty tofu (there's a puffy kind called youdofu, or "oily tofu," that I really like); various small, ready-made dumplings; frozen fish balls, mung bean sprouts, and cellophane or glass noodles.

Even if you stick to the basics, you won't be disappointed.

The only thing that needs attention before the feasting begins is dipping sauce. There are plenty of different ingredients you can put in your bowl to personalize your creation: Soy sauce, sesame oil or paste, chili, garlic, coriander, vinegar and Chinese barbecue sauce (see inset, above) are some choices. When he was younger, my dad added an egg yolk to his mixture.

After you've concocted your dipping sauce — add a little of this and a little of that — the fun begins. We always use chopsticks, although a fork will work just fine. A ladle is useful for some of the more slippery items.

Eating is a free-for-all: Just pick what you like and dip it in the liquid (water at our house, although you can use broth) — no need to wait until someone else is finished before you dive in.

In my family, there are different styles of eating hot pot.

My father is a dumper: He likes to throw a lot of different things into the pot, put the lid on and bring the water to a roiling boil. After a few minutes, he removes — usually with a goofy flourish — the pot's cover, and we dive into the bounty of delectables.

My mother is more meticulous, a picker-and-chooser. She prefers to dip one or two slices of meat at once, swishing them back and forth until they're done; she puts in a few chunks of tofu or a couple of shrimp, keeps track of them, then carefully plucks those — and only those — out.

We kids are a little of both. My detail-oriented side enjoys separating the thin pieces of meat and watching them gradually cook. I like my meat rarer than my parents, so the attention ensures it doesn't overcook; the delicate slices of beef need just a few seconds in the piping hot liquid. But I love dumping in handfuls of leafy greens and an avalanche of tofu and going on a fishing expedition for them later.

My brother and sister are like traffic cops, making sure the bobbing bits don't travel too far outside their designated zone. Battles erupt over rightful ownership of a certain flotilla of shrimp or beef.

After hours of eating, what was once ordinary water is infused with the richness of all that has gone into it and is transformed into something entirely new. In go the noodles, and after a few minutes, we are all quiet, save the slurping of noodles and a sublime soup. It's my favorite part of a meal that holds many pleasures, so try to save room.

In the end, there is this: A family, sitting around a steaming pot of food, talking, joking, sweating, sniffling from the heat, not caring about the weather outside.

Read last week's Kitchen Window: chocolate and champagne.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Pao Family Hot Pot

Table set up for hot pot i i
Maureen Pao, NPR
Table set up for hot pot
Maureen Pao, NPR

The first group of ingredients is a rundown of the basics of a Pao family hot pot meal (a * denotes items that you may only find at an Asian supermarket or specialty store). My parents don't like lamb, so we never had it at home, but it is another traditional hot pot meat. Clams and other shellfish are also an option, although not with my parents. Chicken is used, but must be cooked thoroughly and care must be taken not to get raw chicken on eating utensils. It's too much of a headache, so my folks don't use it either.

Keep in mind, too, that if you leave some of the ingredients off, you may want to add more of the things you keep. These amounts should be used as guidelines; depending on how hearty your appetite, you may have leftovers.

Serves 4-6 healthy eaters

1 to 2 pounds beef eye round, sliced paper thin across the grain (brisket and flank steaks are other popular cuts; depending on how thin the meat is, you may want to stick it back in the freezer to make it easier to separate slices)

1 to 1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, shelled, deveined and slit on one side

2 pounds spinach, washed and roughly chopped or ripped

1 medium to large Napa cabbage, washed and roughly chopped

2 boxes firm tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 pint carton of button mushrooms, cleaned and cut in half

2 to 3 ounces cellophane noodles (also known as glass noodles, bean thread noodles, mung bean noodles; buying them in small packages makes for easier separating), soaked in warm water and drained*

Water (cooking liquid)

For a More Elaborate Meal, Add Any of the Following Items:

Clams (cleaned)

Scallops

Fish, shrimp or cuttlefish balls (defrosted, if frozen)*

Imitation crab sticks (defrosted, if frozen)

Lamb (also sliced paper thin, across the grain)

Chicken (cut into 1/2-inch or so slices)

Leafy greens (baby bok choy, Chinese broccoli or pea shoots, roughly chopped or ripped)*

Mung bean sprouts (rinsed)*

Shiitake, enokitake or other mushrooms (cleaned, large caps should be cut in half)*

Different varieties of tofu (two favorites are "oily tofu" and "tofu skin," defrosted, if frozen, cut if needed into bite-size pieces)*

Different varieties of frozen small dumplings (partially defrosted)*

Chicken, beef, vegetable broth or specialty hot pot broths (available in packets)*

Suggested Ingredients for Dipping Sauce:

Soy sauce

Sesame oil

Sesame paste

White or rice vinegar

Shacha sauce (the Bull Head brand is widely considered the tastiest)*

Minced garlic, shallots or chili peppers

Chopped coriander

Setting the Table:

A round table works best. Place the hot pot in the center of the table; fill it with whatever cooking liquid you're using (don't forget there will be lots of food floating around, so don't overfill).

Depending on how many people are eating, you may want to prepare multiple plates of each ingredient so it's easier for people to reach. Those go on the table, too, family-style, as do all the various condiments for making a dipping sauce. You can plop the bottles down on the table, or present the liquids in cruets or bowls.

Each diner should have a bowl (for dipping sauce and food from the hot pot), a pair of chopsticks (or a fork) and a spoon. A communal ladle (or two) is nice to have around.

We don't eat steamed rice with our hot pot meals, but you can certainly offer that, if you like.

Preparing Dipping Sauce:

Some good combinations for dipping sauces include soy sauce, sesame oil and shacha sauce; soy sauce, sesame oil, sesame paste and coriander; soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic and chilis. There is no right or wrong. One tip: Go easy on any one ingredient (especially the liquid ones — try starting out with just a couple of teaspoons) until you've had a chance to taste the mixture.

Cooking:

When you're just about ready to sit down, turn on the hot pot and bring liquid to a boil; then lower heat and keep the liquid at a gentle simmer. You may need to adjust the temperature during your meal or replenish the cooking liquid.

It's best to put any items that need longer cooking (semi-frozen dumplings, for example) in early to ensure thorough cooking. Also, it's nice to put any bean-curd products in early, as they absorb a lot of flavor during the cooking process.

Use common sense while cooking; if your shrimp is still translucent, it's not done. Generally, nothing (except the frozen dumplings) requires more than a few minutes of cooking. (The dumplings — which will float to the top when they're done — take 5-10 minutes, depending on size).

In our family, the cellophane noodles go in last. The liquid — ordinary water in our family's case — becomes a tasty, fragrant and very healthy soup. We also refill the pot one last time with liquid and dump in all the leftover food, for soup and noodles the next day.

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