Chinese Hot Pot from Peasantry to Emperors

It is said that the tradition of the hot pot is Chinese and comes from the early Qing Dynasty (maybe about 1650). Though I cannot believe that the entrepreneurial taste buds of the Chinese had not tried this healthy and tasty way of cooking many centuries earlier.

But, if we believe the historians, the original Chinese Hot Pot was food for the peasant boatmen and consisted of cooking entrails and blood of animals in boiling water.

It seems that the Chinese peasants suffered the same dietary fate as the medieval Romans consisting of those parts of a sheep (mutton) that were not of interest to the rich – hence sheep heads, kidney, liver, heart, tripe.

But for the Romans these were grilled while the boatmen of Chongqing province boiled their fare. In both cases spices were an essential additive to this cheap food and each `society` favoured this repast in the cooler months.

In China, it is reported that a later Qing Emperor enjoyed the dish and by replacing the offal with quality meat slices and vegetables, made it popular with the broader public, including the wealthy. Just as sheep heads have become a taste sensation of Rome, Hot Pot became a fashionable dish in China, eaten not just in winter.

And now, Hot Pot is not just a meat or offal dish, though mutton is still the core meat for traditionalists, as the foodstyle ranges from game to fowl, shellfish to fish of the ocean, vegetarian to vegan.

Let me tell of an experience with a Hot Pot buffet based on fish and crustaceans, supported, even in China, by a glass of white wine.

The restaurant was all things to all people, providing an `eat all you can` buffet of raw meat and fish that could be prepared in a variety of ways, either at the table or by the chef in the open kitchen.

There was also an array of salad ingredients, prepared vegetable dishes and the obligatory table of ingredients for hot pot. I chose to have a private hot pot at the table and informed my Chinese waiter with a variety of hand signals that I would have fish hot pot.

He seemed bemused but I insisted. He showed me two canteens of broth, one `hot` and the other `mild`. Remembering that traditional Chinese hot pot is a very spicy dish, I looked twice at the bright red and orange broth and selected the mild version.

While awaiting preparation of the table and supply of the pot, I wandered around the restaurant and selected a few `starters`, cooked mussels, mini-spring rolls and smoked salmon rolls (2 of each). Then I filled a plate with raw vegetables, potato, lotus root, Chinese cabbage, bok choy and the ever-present tofu in slices and blocks, being uncertain which version each was.

My glass of white arrived first and I took a sip, not too bad.

The broth arrived and the flame was lit.

When it seemed close to boiling I added the potato and lotus root. Then I went to select my fish. A reasonable variety was presented but I just chose whitefish fillet, sections of a lake fish and cuttlefish.

At last cuttlefish is what the waiter insisted, but I was reasonable certain it was squid.

<<Cook it for 2 minutes>>, I was told, so I cooked the fish pieces for about double that and the squid a bit longer. I received a ladle to fulfil the role of removing the fish and vegetables from the broth.

As I progressively removed items, they were replaced by the greens, that really did only take a couple of minutes to cook.

The simultaneous tasks of adding, cooking, removing and eating the fish while it was hot were a bit overbearing. Nevertheless, the whitefish was delicate and delicious.

There was only one way to eat the squid, whole, commencing with the relatively short tentacles. The challenge was the lake fish, bones, bones and more bones, so I didn’t do it justice. I must have missed something with the potato and lotus root as both were bland, but maybe that is because my taste buds had been alerted by the other sensor creators.

After the dash through cooking and eating I had time to finish the wine and was pleasantly surprised to receive another bonus glass with which to polish off the last of the greens.

In parallel I could taste the broth now that it had absorbed the flavours of all my selections. Replete, it is time to retreat.