Hello again to part two of my journey through a hot pot dinner. Last post, I spoke about my very brief initiation to the hot pot experience with some fish roe and homemade soy milk, but it was merely a prelude to the symphony of flavors that I hope to fully convey through this amazing new post.
Before I even sat down at the table, I was advised to change out of my fancy new years eve clothes since hot pot could be messy. I didn’t think that I would have to dress down in order to eat a simple meal. When I sat down around the table, first I had to choose between a mild pot and a spicy pot which were on opposite ends of the table.
If you don’t know me/haven’t read my previous posts like with the XXX spicy wing challenge, I will have you know that I am quite the chili head. When most people expect me to not be able to eat their spicy ethnic foods, I just smile and go about my business sampling their cuisine. This has led to me making plenty of friends down the road during my dining experiences. Therefore, I took my seat at the spicy end of the table where I quickly saw people throwing in strips of red marbled beef, healthy pink pork, large grey and pink shrimp, and striped bass into the ludicrously red broth. Later, they added watercress, taro root, and mushrooms since they apparently soak up the spice like a sponge with water. I found out that David’s family had brought back a packet of chili pepper native to the Szechuan region which is notorious for blazing hot dishes. While these meats were bubbling in the pot, we passed around small cups of cilantro, green onions, sesame oil, and soy sauce to put in our bowls. However, David informed me that it is tradition in Taiwanese hot pot to use a dipping sauce made of raw egg, green onions, and prawn paste. I wanted to do the real deal, so he made me my own bowl of dipping sauce for my first round of hot pot. It also helped cool down the smoldering hot meats and vegetables.
In order to get the contents of the pot into your bowl, you are supplied with mini metal wire scoops that look like small butterfly nets. Thankfully everyone was really helpful with supplying me with my food while I was attempting to get a hang of my chopsticks. Since I’m moving to Korea soon, I made it my mission to eat the entire meal with chopsticks, and I finally managed to do it! My first bowl consisted of fish balls, beef, green onions, cilantro, and prawn paste. The fish balls were made with a semi-firm dough which was dotted with peas and encapsulated the savory fish inside. The raw egg sauce provided a nice onion/soy flavor to the strong fish flavor. The beef piece was tiny but succulent, and the prawn paste gave the bowl a nice surf and turf vibe.
The second helping I ate contained some striped bass, beef, pork, fish roll, watercress, and mushrooms. The bass was stewed quite quickly, but it literally melted in my mouth like some sort of heavenly piece of fish butter. As for the beef and pork, I was a bit flummoxed as to what to do with these large pieces of meat that were cooling off in my raw egg sauce since we didn’t have forks or knives. Thankfully my friend David said it was cool for me to just go at it, and I wholeheartedly enjoyed each juicy and spicy slice. The more elongated fish roll was not as satisfying as the ball dumplings, but it seemed to be stuffed with a stronger tasting type of fish. Plus, I had thought that the mushrooms were initially noodles since they were so long and thin, but in reality they were winter mushrooms. The cabbage was also delicious. Even though it was put in last, it contained so much chili flavor that it was like a warm, non-fermented version of the popular Korean dish kimchee.
My third bowl (in hot pot, you eat a lot slower and savor the smaller portions) consisted of prawns, mushrooms, watercress, taro root, and pickled radishes. The prawns were still in their shells and with legs, but I took a mighty bite into their pink bodies to be welcomed by a explosion of flavor. The mushrooms were a non-factor, but the watercress and the pickled radishes had a similar chili infusion like the cabbage. This bowl was a bit trickier because the radishes were quite slippery after swimming around in the hot pot, and the taro root kept on disintegrating when I would grab at it with my chopsticks. I finally managed to get both into my mouth, and the taro was more interesting because texture-wise it was like a semi-mashed potato but possessed a more earthy flavor. Once I finished that bowl, I was faced with something that reminded me of a type of pizza they serve at Sbarros.
It was basically green onions baked inside bread that was coated in sesame seeds and had a crust. Perhaps this is what Marco Polo brought back to Italy from China. Pizza origin theories aside, this was probably my favorite part of hot pot. The bread was golden brown and crisp on the outside while soft and pliable on the inside. I’m a huge onion and sesame seed fan, so I was in heaven biting into the verdant interior of this onion bread and experiencing the mellow sesame seeds combining with the strong green onion flavor. It also went really well with the raw egg sauce as a sort of replacement for garlic butter or marinara sauce.
After eating a couple of slices, I limped to my fourth and final bowl which had some of the aforementioned ingredients along with a pink fish dumpling. It was like the other fish dumplings but had a slightly sweeter, more tuna-esque taste.
However, the fourth bowl was unlike the others because I had asked David why we had spoons on the table. He then proceeded to ladle in the devilishly red pepper broth from our spicy hot pot into my bowl . This lava in my bowl was pretty spicy but tolerable for me. Once I finished eating this molten ambrosia, my mouth felt kind of funny, but it turns out that the Szechuan pepper causes slight numbness along with burning in the mouth.
Even though I couldn’t feel my mouth, it was a sign that I had just experienced an authentic piece of Chinese culture, and I am thankful that David and his family welcomed me into their home to take part in this very entertaining tradition. Hope you and everyone else has a happy and healthy new year!