Hot for Hot Pot

Ben Thanh's goat hot pot

Ben Thanh’s goat hot pot

Some people simply don’t like to share their food. Others don’t like to work for it. This is not for you.

A hot pot meal is for those who see dining as a communal experience, sharing conversation with family and friends while cooking together. Especially with recent research showing that about half—with that number on the rise—of all American meals are eaten alone (and quickly), lingering over hot pot would be a warm and welcome change.

Here I define hot pot as the experience of gathering around a table and cooking food in broth simmering over a heat source that’s centered among the diners. The components tend to include said broth, various meats, vegetables, mushrooms, tofu, noodles, dumplings, and dipping sauce. Participants control the pace and progression of the meal, along with the selection of what to eat. But not before first admiring the abundant and inviting spread of food.

Of course, admiration can turn to consternation if you’re not familiar with the hot pot process. It can be intimidating, especially if you’re at a restaurant and face language barriers—however helpful the staff might try to be.

So, how do you hot pot?

One person typically volunteers (or is volunteered!) to start the cooking process, which includes monitoring the flame. You don’t want the heat too low to be ineffective, or too high in boiling away all the broth. (Some restaurants will replenish broth, though some just water it down.) With the “community” utensils (including meat-specific tongs or chopsticks, to avoid cross-contamination), the “table chef” puts some meat and other items in the broth. The order of entry might depend on cooking time. Dumplings, for example, can cook slowly. Tofu and vegetables tend to cook more quickly. Save rice or noodles for the end of the meal, retrieving your choice with some broth and eating as soup.

As things complete cooking, the table chef might dole out food, but diners usually help themselves using slotted spoons, “community” chopsticks, or mini-mesh baskets to avoid removing too much broth. Never put your own chopsticks in the broth! Your bounty goes into your personal bowl or plate to eat as you please, perhaps with dipping sauce. At some point, cheffing responsibilities democratize as diners order more items and throw things in the broth as they get hungry. (This is especially true at all-you-can-eat restaurants.) But, at least at first, recognize that eating is not a race, and that it’s good etiquette to ensure that everyone gets their fair share of each food item.

What exactly is that food? It depends, of course, on the cuisine.

At Ben Thanh, there are several hot pots (lau) with the goat (de) version the signature dish advertised to the world on the Vietnamese restaurant’s window. Chunks of goat meat come pre-loaded in the pot, already cooked in a Chinese herbal broth. You need to pull the meat off the bone and decide whether you want the layer of skin that comes with it. The chao dipping sauce with chili and fermented tofu, somewhat creamy, cuts the gaminess and fattiness. (A side dish of sliced red chili can fire up the pot with additional heat.) You add vegetables (last visit it was water morning glory, Garland chrysanthemum, and yu choy) and curly egg noodles to the cooking broth as desired.

In addition to lau de, Ben Thanh has three other hot pots, including a Thai-style with what the waitress described as a hot and sour broth. Hot pots are found in Korean, Filipino, Thai, and other Southeast Asian cuisines, but they’re difficult to find in the immediate Seattle area.

What you will find, though, are Japanese hot pots, known as nabemono. Sukiyaki is one popular version, though restaurants like Maneki and Bush Garden bring out pans with the beef, tofu, clear noodles and cabbage pre-cooked. (You still get to dip your beef in raw, beaten egg.) Also popular is shabu-shabu—named for the sound of swishing thin-sliced meat (along with vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, and noodles) quickly through kombu (kelp) broth. You then dip the cooked food through sauce, typically goma (sesame) or ponzu (citrus). Shabu Chic* is an example of a local restaurant that offers shabu-shabu.

Chinese hot pots are currently most common in our area, many all-you-can-eat. While there are numerous regional variations of hot pots in China, Seattle’s tend to be Sichuanese. You’ll find a good example at Sichuanese Cuisine. The yin-yang of the split-broth hot pot is appropriate. One broth is mild while the other comes laced with chili peppers and peppercorns, making it tongue-numbing and spicy (ma la). Platters come with pork and beef (including tripe, with lamb available at extra charge), Chinese cabbage, Chinese broccoli, tofu, noodles, and sometimes more—plus peanut sauce. Gourmet Noodle Bowl and Seven Stars Pepper have similar hot pots at a similar price, while Chinese chain Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot offers more choice of ingredients at a slightly higher (but still all-you-can-eat) price.

Although most Chinese restaurants have a 2-person minimum for hot pot (and Ben Thanh’s $34.95 price is for a pot large enough for two), you can also hot pot while solo. Shabu Chic lets you order by weight. The apt-named Boiling Point brings a burner to your table, offering a variety of individual hot pots from Thai to Korean to Japanese to Taiwanese—including stinky tofu, a personal favorite. And places like King Noodle give you a “scorecard” ordering form to fill out to personalize a bowl, allowing you to choose broth, proteins, vegetables, and noodles for a set price, though you can order extra items for an extra charge.

You can also bring the spirit of hot pot to your home by getting a portable gas burner and butane cartridges. A hot pot party requires some preparation, including the challenge of thin-slicing the meat. Pro-tip: Freeze it slightly first or, even better, buy it pre-sliced at most any Asian grocery store—where you can also get packets to make your favorite broth. The most important ingredients are the family and friends who you invite over to enjoy the cooking process and the company.

Originally published in condensed form on EthnicSeattle.com on 10/20.

*Shabu Chic announced its closure just after initial publication of this article.

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