Monday, December 29, 2008

Hot Pot

Hot pot set up

One of the few holiday traditions my family has is to do huo guo, or hot pot, when my brother and I are home. It's very similar to the Japanese shabu shabu, but I think the biggest difference is in the dipping sauce.

I've noticed that most Taiwanese people use a lot more sa cha, or Chinese barbecue sauce, and also add a raw egg to thicken the sauce up even more. Now sa cha is this intensely flavorful sauce that tastes different from anything else I've ever tasted. And apparently, it usually contains brill fish and fermented shrimp paste, which is why there is a vegetarian version of it. If you've never tried this sauce before, the old adage, "a little goes a long way" definitely applies. But for those of us that are addicted to it for hot pot, you can almost never get enough. Every time I go out for shabu shabu now I have to ask for a small bowl of sa cha because they never give you more than like a tablespoon to start off with.

Now let's talk about the raw egg. My family splits the egg so that the egg yolk goes in your bowl to be mixed into the dipping sauce and the egg white goes in the boiling water to be cooked. I didn't realize this was unusual until I started hosting hot pot parties and everyone else either used the whole raw egg in their dipping sauce or didn't use it at all. For those who are concerned about salmonella and stuff, you can always add enough of the boiling water to your bowl to temper the sauce so that the heat kills off all the bad germs, but I prefer to keep the sauce as undiluted as possible. I figure I've lived a year in Taiwan eating street food and survived so I should be able to handle a raw egg every once in a while.

Lastly, I add soy sauce to the dipping sauce in about a 1:1 ratio with the sa cha. You can also add chopped raw garlic, chopped scallions, chopped ginger, hot sauce, heck, someone I know even puts peanut butter in there. Speaking of weird hot pot combinations, I once had a Coca-cola hot pot in Taiwan where Coke was used instead of broth and the dipping sauce kind of resembled a ranch dressing but thinner. It was weird, but surprisingly yummy.

Fish balls, shrimp balls, and crab balls
Pork and beef

Fish cakes, fish balls, and crab balls

As for what to put in the hot pot, these are my personal favorites: napa cabbage, Shanghai bok choi, taro, firm tofu, tofu puffs, fried gluten, sliced pork, fish balls, shrimp balls, fish cakes, enoki mushrooms, and bean thread vermicelli. You can also use any type of sliced meat, fish, shrimp, shellfish, veggies, noodles...anything! Even though I usually don't like pork, it's my favorite meat to use in hot pot because it's so fatty that it remains tender after boiling. Chicken usually gets too tough and dry and a poorer cut of beef will also be too tough and dry but a better cut of beef would be wasted by boiling. If you can't find any sliced meat (I find this at Asian grocery stores) you can always slice it yourself. I find that it's a lot easier to get a very thin slice with a partially frozen block of meat. And if you have the time and are so inclined, you can roll up each individual slice so that when you dump it into the hot pot you don't get a huge wad of meat stuck together. Plus, it looks pretty. =)

I have an electric hot pot with interchangeable plates so that I can use it to grill as well. You can also use an electric hot plate or a portable gas burner with your own pot. Basically you want to be able to have a boiling pot of broth in the middle of a table so that people can sit around and grab what they want to eat out of the hot pot. A fondue pot most likely wouldn't work because it wouldn't be able to keep a pot of broth boiling.

Since I my pot has a non-stick coating, I only use allow plastic utensils (ladles, slotted spoons, etc.) to be used in it, but traditionally everyone gets their own little metal net to use. Sometimes people use two bowls, one larger one to put the cooked food in and a smaller one to use for the dipping sauce. Me, I hate washing dishes, so I just put the cooked food in my bowl with the dipping sauce.

Having hosted hot pot so many times, I've developed my own set of rules to increase efficiency and decrease chances of foodborne illnesses.
  • Right before guests arrive, start the chicken broth boiling in the hot pot. Add the white parts of the vegetables and taro to the broth to pre-cook since they will take a little longer to cook through. You can also add the tofu, tofu puffs, fish balls, and fish cakes since these are not as time sensitive.
  • Have a pot or kettle of boiling water ready to add to the hot pot as the level of the liquid decreases in the pot.
  • I like to use a shot glass, sake cup, or a Chinese soup spoon to hold individual raw eggs as part of each person's place setting.
  • If you are adding raw eggs or egg whites to the hot pot, make sure the water is boiling before you do so. This is something my mom told me to do, and I think it's because this way it will cook faster and not spread out too much before it gets to cook. I'm always searching around for my cooked egg enough as it is.
  • Before adding any raw meat or seafood, make sure everyone has had a chance to grab enough food. This is because you don't want to be getting any food from the hot pot until the meat is cooked through and any bacteria or other fun stuff is all killed off. Wait until the water is boiling again before removing any further food to eat. This does create natural pauses during the process, but it should only take a few minutes for the water to re-boil again. You definitely don't want to let the meat or shrimp to overcook so make sure it gets removed from the hot pot once it is done. Sometimes I have a larger bowl handy to dump cooked but unclaimed food in so that nothing gets overcooked. Also, I usually use a chopstick that's different from the ones set out to eat with to use for the raw meat.
  • Don't add the bean thread vermicelli or any other noodles until the really end because the noodles will soak up the liquid in the pot. My favorite part of hot pot is drinking the delicious broth left in the pot at the very end. So many yummy ingredients have been cooked in it that it turns into this really fragrant and savory soup full of umami flavoring.
My favorite ingredient to add to my hot pot is my mom's pork and fish meatballs. She taught me how to make these a couple of years ago, and I try to make a batch at the start of every hot pot season not only because they are so good themselves, but also because the water used to cook them is a really good starter broth for hot pot too. Recently, I called my mom to ask her for the recipe again and it turns out she tweaked it this year to include celery and carrots.

Ingredients for meat balls

My Mom's Hot Pot Meatballs

makes about 24 meatballs

1 lb ground pork
1 lb fish paste, thawed (sometimes called fish meat emulsion, sold in 16 oz. plastic tubs and usually found near the fish balls in an Asian grocery store)
1 large carrot or 2 small carrots, peeled and shredded (optional)
3 celery stalks, deveined and finely chopped (optional)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 egg
2 tablespoons fried shallots (also found in Asian grocery stores)
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Pepper to taste (my mom uses black, I prefer white)

Mix all the ingredients together. You can taste test the mixture before cooking by microwaving a small teaspoons worth in the microwave for 15-20 seconds. Adjust seasonings as needed.

Drop rounded tablespoons of the mixture into boiling water. Alternatively, you can roll the meatballs with your hands before dropping into the water. Stop adding meatballs to the boiling water once you can cover the bottom with a single layer. The meatballs will be done a minute or two after they start floating. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside. Repeat until all meatballs have been cooked.

Reserve the broth as a soup base (delicious with sliced daikon and bean thread vermicelli) or as a starter broth for hot pot.

Hot pot meat balls
The celery and carrots are optional but add some nice color and texture to the meatballs.

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