Hot pots let everyone enjoy lunar festivities

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This year, February 3 marks the start of the new year on the lunar calendar. Over the next 15 days, traditionally designated as the Spring Festival in Chinese culture, there will be a lot of eating and socializing. While it’s great to celebrate with friends at a restaurant, the thought of the inevitable crowds—not to mention the expense—has led me to opt for a more leisurely dinner at home.

The problem is, I don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen while everyone’s enjoying themselves. I’ve considered potluck: Auntie Mei could do her famous steamed fish; Cousin Esther might bring homemade jiaozi, or potstickers; and Uncle Winston can always be counted on to pick out the best roast duck from the barbecue store. But coordinating everyone in my small kitchen can be stressful. So it’s going to be huo guo for everyone this year.

Often translated from Chinese as “hot pot” (although technically it should be “fire pot”), similar one-pot meals are called shabu-shabu in Japan, suki in Thailand, lau in Vietnam, and “steamboat” in Singapore and Malaysia. This fondue-like, cook-it-yourself meal of meat, seafood, and veggies dunked in hot broth is especially popular in winter and a great way to entertain. It’s easy to set up and even easier to serve.

The equipment is readily available at Asian supermarkets and kitchenware stores. For the centre of the table, you’ll need a portable burner (a butane-fuelled one will do fine, but the electric induction type is the safest) and a shallow, flat-bottomed pot with a lid to hold the boiling broth. For each place setting, you’ll need a pair of wooden or bamboo chopsticks, a small plate to put the cooked food on, a small sauce bowl, a soup bowl, and a mini strainer.

Depending on the size of your pot, start with about two litres of store-bought or homemade chicken stock for six to eight people. Toss in a couple of slices of fresh ginger and Chinese mushrooms; bring the broth to a boil, and you’re ready to go. Keep more warmed stock or just plain hot water on hand to replenish the broth as it cooks down during the meal.

As for ingredients, as long as everything is cut into bite-size pieces or thin slices that are quick to cook, almost anything goes. Chicken, beef, pork, lamb, and venison are all good meat choices. If you’re doing your own cutting, partially freezing the meats will make slicing much easier. Or you can buy them in convenient frozen packs, machine-sliced and tidily presented, in many Asian groceries. I like a lot of variety, so I usually allow for three to four slices (about one ounce) of at least three types of meat per person. Seafood such as firm-fleshed fish slices, shucked oysters, scallops, prawns, and slices of lobster tail is sure to delight. Perhaps two pieces of three different items per head? For balance, set out a good variety of leafy vegetables such as napa cabbage, spinach, watercress, tatsoi, chrysanthemum greens, and baby bok choy on platters or in baskets. Mushrooms, bamboo shoots, lotus root, and tofu will also add interest. To complete the meal—and to enjoy with the rich broth—end with filling staples like blanched wheat or rice noodles, presoaked cellophane noodles, and perhaps dumplings or won tons.

For dipping sauces, put out bowls of chili sauce or chili-bean paste, good quality soy sauce, satay sauce (often labelled “Chinese barbecue sauce”), and toasted sesame paste so that guests can mix their own dipping sauce to taste in their sauce bowls. You can also offer raw eggs, which when beaten into the sauce mixture will thicken it and help cool down the food. (Note that health authorities advise against serving raw eggs to anyone whose immune system is compromised, including pregnant women, babies, and young children.)

Because of the widespread popularity of this way of eating among Southeast Asians in Metro Vancouver, shopping is a snap. All you need is some room in your freezer and fridge to stock up, and you’ll be ready to serve up a fun meal as quickly as you can boil water.

A recent survey found a variety of Asian stores that sell frozen, presliced meats and everything else you’d need to fire up a huo guo. T?&?T and Osaka supermarkets (various locations) always have a good selection of seafood. In Chinatown, at Carley BBQ and Hot Pot Supplies (257 East Georgia Street, 604-683-8198), you’ll find vegetables, tofu, noodles, and such at the front and frozen packs of sliced meat in the freezers at the back (special orders are welcome). Tripe or lamb kidneys, anyone?

In addition to sliced meats, meatballs, and dipping sauces, ICM Enterprises BBQ and Hot Pot Meats (165–4231 Hazelbridge Way, Richmond; 604-270-1997) offers prepacked, just-add-water-and-boil broth ingredients in combos such as lotus root, pork shank, and daikon. They also have frozen, marinated, ready-for-the-grill items such as lemongrass chicken. One of my current favourites, Kim’s Mart (523 East Broadway, 604-872-8885), not only has good-quality sliced meats and a nice variety of fresh vegetables, it also has an impressive selection of mushrooms—maitake, white and brown beech mushrooms, and king oyster mushrooms were among the tasty finds last week.

The best thing about hot-potting is that once all the ingredients are laid out on the table, everyone’s ready to sit down to dinner—including you. What’s more, if you have the ingredients on hand, it’s great for those impromptu visits that can happen during the Spring Festival period. So gung hay fat choy, and happy hot-potting!

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