Hand to Mouth

misadventures in eating

火锅—or, shabu shabu—and how it changed my life.

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My family hails from the Southern half of China, rich with marshy land and monsoon seasons, but close enough to the Yangtze — China’s default dividing line — to anticipate frosty, drizzling winters. Think North Carolina with a more-stubborn cold: no snow, but all freezing rain. It’s the kind of winter that fuels Hemingway jokes about chickens crossing the road to die. Alone. In the rain.

And one of the more primary delights of these cold months is the sheer, blissful indulgence of huo guo. Chinese huo guo is probably more commonly known in the U.S. by its Japanese name, shabu shabu — or, “swish swish” in Japanese, indicating how you cook your food — and has its incarnations in all Asian cultures. America even has its fondue, although it’s not a very good comparison. As far as I understand the art of fondue, nothing should be raw when it meets the hot cheese.

For the same reason people are universally fascinated by things like sukiyakiand bulgoki, the prospect of cooking for themselves and delighting in eating it — literally — hot off the grill, I have always adored huo go: You eat it hot out of the pot.

The star in a huo guo dinner is always the pot, once a stainless steel or copper pot not unlike a bundt pan, balanced atop a conical mount under which embers flecked sparks out, and a chimney rising out from the circular opening of the bundt pan pot to puff deeply, like a small smokestack.

This is all apocryphal to me, since I’ve never actually seen one in action, and if I had to learn how to start a fire and keep embers going to fasciliate my eating, I’d probably have withered away to a size 6 — which The Devil Wears Prada tells me is the new size 14 — by now. These days, we have savvy, electronic versions, with dials and fiddly buttons and things to moderate temperature — or you can be ghetto fabulous like my parents and I and just buy a really swanky red fondue pot.

When I was younger, I always begged and begged to eat huo guo, a request that was more often than not met with rolled eyes and disappointment — it’s kind of an ordeal to prepare. Like fondue and unlike sukiyaki and bulgoki, preparing the base for huo guo can be a time consuming minefield of potential errors: too fishy? too salty? too bland? did you just boil water in this? More traditionally, beef or chicken or fish stock were used, flavored with rounds of ginger to give it heat and then the whole pot brought to a rolling boil. The ingredients — what you actually ate — were elaborately arranged around the bubbling pot: slices of milky-white tofu, crumbling at the edges, verdant bunches of spinach, watercress leaves, paper-thin slices of chicken, of beef, of lamb, fish and shrimp pastes, fashioned into balls and other shapes, sliced for easy cooking. There are white mushrooms for quick cooking, and deep-fried tofu, the oil and oxidation process blowing them up like puff pastries, giving them an entirely new texture. Shrimp, fish, chicken gizzards and bean sprouts, any and potentially everything can go into the huo gup — it’s all simply a matter of preference and taste. Ideally, it’d all be sliced elegantly, into even-sized shapes and arranged prettily in small platters around the pot, and then all the Asians around it would make noises about somebody else getting the party started, being courteous to a starving point.

The twist in my family was always making it hot. My father, despite his ulcer and despite doctor’s warnings is in a hopeless and somewhat abusive love affair with spice, adores it, likes it best when it numbs his entire tongue and nose, makes him sneeze and gulp water; my father would be right at home eating roasted jalapeno peppers, Indian curries made for and by the natives. And as a child, I could not abide by this, my entire white toast, cold milk existence recoiled in horror at the thought of eating anything with more than two shakes of black pepper — and then my father embraced Szechuan huo guo.

Although a lot of webpages about food use terrifying phrases like “pot full of boiling hot oil,” Szechuan or more specifically, Chongqing huo guo is more a combination of spices in the cooking stock than the presence of a deep fryer. It’s a noxious-looking combination of herbs and whole spices: cloves, still in the dark, skeletal flowers, peppercorns, red pepper flakes, red chili oil (I’ve made this from scratch before; for those brave enough to try: do not under any circumstances breath in the rising smoke unless you have a convenient eyewash nearby) and other mysterious flavorings and herbs. This once upon a time must have been a tedious process, too, but these days, your local Asian grocery store will have prepared packets of this near-nuclear combo, freeze-dried — word of warning, use a quarter package for a small pot, a third for a larger, and half if you have a wild streak. My family’s first attempt we unwisely dumped the whole thing in and I still haven’t completely gotten feeling back in my tongue.

That said, it was equal parts temptation and pure gluttony that changed me — ever so slowly — from a girl who balked at green peppers to barely blinking at the green salsa at Burritoville’s salsa bar, a substance so toxic I bet it could eat through the ugly formica tables. I owe it all to huo guo, and my father’s affection for its Chongqing incarnation.

hot pot!And so now I’m unfazed when my parents bring up a terrifyingly red and bubbling pot, witches brew or not, it can only lead to awesome, and I grab my chopsticks and pluck up slices of mushroom, delicate pieces of tofu, spooning up fish balls and pieces of chicken and beef, dropping leafy greens into the pot — barely able to wait until I can scoop them up again and burn yet more taste buds off of my tongue.

Huo guo is always a group affair, as you never go through the somewhat intricate process of preparing for such a feast for the pleasure of your own company, and usually comes part and parcel with a lot of boozy laughter and shouting, that sense of a slightly crowded, overwarm room, and the slow, seeping satisfaction of eating slowly and over the course of a long period of time.

My favorite memory of huo guo is from the seven months I spent in China for study abroad, shacked up in Beijing near the Exhibition Center in the northwest corner of the city, 40-some minutes away by subway to the Forbidden Palace, an hour or more from the Central Business District. My friends and I, on one of the most bitterly-cold days of Beijing’s punishing winter, were trying to make our way back to our dorms, and less than ten blocks away, buffeted by winds and so freezing we were near-stupid with it, I saw a restaurant and called it quits, saying, “Dinner! Dinner! We’ll do dinner first!” And when we burst in out of the cold we saw that maybe a small nation of Chinese had thought to do the same; but being American and blue-eyed — which two of my friends were — has street cred in China, still, and we got a table in a far corner near a heater and approximately six hundred smokers, and we started in on our Beijing style huo guo. Beijing’s version is called suan yang rou and composed of 90 percent mutton, which forced me to call an immediate veto and had me packing our table with more traditional, Southern Chinese elements…which got me a dirty look from the waitress. Then came the booze, cheap, golden-yellow TsingDao we got green bottle by green bottle, and by the time we finally stumbled out of that restaurant, hours later, we could barely feel the cold nipping at our fingertips and toes, through our jeans and boots and thermal underwear, and we took off laughing across the street and then the square, and I kept laughing even as the blizzard started, swirling around us like a dervish.

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Written by lshen

October 22, 2006 at 10:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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