Back in Shanghai (at last!), it’s cold, grey and blustery and a horrible flu seems about to take grip. Under these circumstances, the best comfort food I can think of is hotpot, a big steaming pot of Chinese soup with all kinds of delicious things to cook in it. I love to come in from the cold street to a room full of steaming pots, one for each table, with diners huddled over their pots selecting a choice item from their plates and dipping it in. The room is full of chatter and good humour, and everyone looks warm and happy.
The waitress brings us an enormous menu, practically bigger than a chair and running to twenty pages. It looks dauntingly confusing but the first choice to make is your soup base. Choose from a fragrant mushroom-based clear broth, a thick-with-chillies blow-your-head-off spicy version, a creamy marrow soup, or a yin-yang – a pot with a clever central divider so you can have two different soups. The waitress brings the broad pot of warm soup and places it carefully in the ready made hole in our table, with a gas burner below it. Pretty soon, it’s bubbling away and our column of steam rises up from our table to join all the other steam plumes in the restaurant.
Then choose the plates of items to dip in your soup – meats, mushrooms, meatballs, vegetables, tofu, dumplings, noodles and even offal, if that’s your thing. I’m passing on the tripe and congealed duck’s blood thanks! We start instead with paper thin rolls of sliced raw beef, and some crescent shaped dumplings filled with pork and vegetables and wrapped in the thinnest covering of egg, and black agaric (cloud ear fungus). These all add to the flavour as the night goes on, and the simple soup you began with develops a wonderful richness and complexity as you chat, and dip, and chat some more.
Whilst those are cooking we sidle off to the sauce buffet to mix our own dipping sauce, Here’s where hotpot really gets fun. Take a dish, and mix away – sesame paste, sichuan chili black bean paste, peanut sauce, soy suace, chili sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, chopped coriander, chopped garlic, ginger, scallions, pickles and more. You can have a single sauce or mix as many as you like together for a custom blend. Should you need it you can also add salt, sugar, pepper or even MSG to taste.
Back at the table and it’s time for some extras to go into the pot. Bean noodles, hearty potato slices, bok choy and shitake mushrooms go in, a few at a time. When they’re cooked, fish them out with your chopsticks and dip them in your sauce. Delicious! Even green vegetables taste good this way!
I remember our first hotpot foray in Shanghai, where all eleven of us were put into a private room. We had absolutely no idea what to do, so when the plates of food arrived we chucked them all in at once, resulting in a big mess of meat, greens and noodles that all cooked at different rates. The chaos and splashing seemed fun but the overcooked greens sank limply to the bottom of the pot and the noodles got tangled up in everything. We didn’t even know there were sauces to be had.
We were finally seated the next time adjacent to a table of locals, and we could see their slow and considered hotpot cooking style in action. Just one or two items at a time, lots of chatting, and a social meal that lasted for several hours. So that’s how you do it!