Food: Perfect weather for hot pot soup

Family style hot pot is easy to prepare and fun for groups. Picture: LANCE SEETO

The recent humidity of hot days and cool means signals an ideal time to stay ahead of possible sickness with nutritiously spicy and medicinal soups. Most Asian cultures have long believed that drinking hot, spicy soups in humid weather helps to regulate body temperature to prevent sickness. Hot pot soups are thought to have originated in cold Mongolia nearly 1000 years ago, as its infantryman would light fi res to keep themselves warm.

At the same time, they would boil a pot of water and begin adding whatever vegetables and meats to create a nourishing meal in the freezing cold temperatures, including horse meat.

Today, hot pot is a cheap, delicious and fun communal eating experience where you basically cook your own food at the table.

Typically, it involves a large bowl of broth placed in the centre of a table, boiling over a portable stove. Ingredients ranging from raw vegetables to thinly sliced meats are also placed on the table so that diners c a n submerge them in the broth to cook before eating. A range of sauces, condiments and herbs accompany the raw ingredients to enjoy once they are cooked.

Hot pot soups are perfect for tropical nights and because it is essentially just blanched and boiled foods, it is wonderfully healthy for you.

 

Hot pot at home 

My family had regular hot pot gatherings at home when I was growing up, with a simmering pot of stock in the centre, surrounded by a sumptuous banquet of raw meats, seafood, noodles and lots of different vegetables. In those days we used little brass baskets that would hold a small handful of ingredients.

You would lean the basket on the pot’s rim in front of you and wait until the ingredients were cooked. As the adults yarned, I would sneakily tip their baskets over and quickly scoop up its spilt contents with my own empty basket. When they finally went to retrieve their baskets – they were empty!

My father would get upset at this point and decide to throw lots of ingredients straight into the pot for everyone to go fish for their own.

Having your own hot pot party at home is easy. It starts with a seasoned soup base of meat or vegetable stock that can be prepared well in advance. Chinese stores also sell ready-to-use soup base ingredients that you just add water and seasoning to. Or you can dial up the spice in a manner that will blow your top off with pepper, fresh or dried chilli or chilli oil; perfect for winter nights.

I recommend somewhere in between, but be prepared to sweat and slurp your way through the entire experience as the boiling stock ensures everything is served nice and hot. For the heat source you could use a single or double gas stove top, or if you want to enjoy hot pot outside, sit the stock pot over a wood fi re or BBQ.

To retrieve your cooked foods, you’ll need some slotted spoons or ladles, or maybe those little brass baskets if you can find them at the Chinese shop.

 

What to put into the hot pot 

Common hot pot ingredients include thinly-sliced, raw meats like chicken, pork, beef and lamb. Freezing the meat first into a block and then slicing them frozen will result in much fi ner slices, which cook faster in the hot broth. If you don’t have a slicer, ask your local butcher to prepare your hot pot meats.

The thin slices not only ensure fast cooking but increases the number of pieces you serve to guests with the same amount of meat, which in turn saves you money. Such a typical Chinese way of thinking! Seafood will also cook fast but prepare them to bite-sized portions and if using prawns, clams or lobster, partially de-shell and devein them first.

However the best and most healthy part of hot pot is the vegetables; and plenty of them too. Vegetables should out number the variety of meats and seafood two to one.

Leafy greens are ideal for hot pot as they take little to no time to cook, but any light weight vegetables are ideal. This includes local moca, ota ferns, spinach, iceberg lettuce, mushrooms, any type of cabbage, celery, zucchini, peas, beans, gourds and tofu. If using harder vegetables like carrots or root crops, slice them very thinly.

Chinese shops also have a wide range of frozen and dried goods that are great for hot pot including all types of balls made from meats and seafood, as well as dumplings, fried tofu, Asian mushrooms, lotus root, and both rice and wheat noodles in a variety of thickness.

 

How to eat hot pot

When everyone is sharing the same communal hot pot bowl at home, there is some etiquette or you’ll sure to have someone like me gate crash the party. First, try to learn to use chopsticks as they are an essential tool in eating Chinese foods, including hot pot.

Take turns. Try to eat what you’ve cooked first as it’s easy to lose track of food when it’s simmering and you’re talking. Drop hot pot ingredients in with chopsticks. Fish them out with chopsticks or hot pot ladles.

It is easy to overcook thinly-sliced meats so you may want to simply swish it around quickly with your chopsticks if you like you meats cooked rare, instead of dropping it in. With the dipping sauces, each diner should have their own little bowl for themselves.

The idea is to dunk the newly cooked hot pot ingredients into the sauce before eating. Some hot pot restaurants have make-yourown sauce bars while others do not. A typical combination is sesame oil with a little bit of soy sauce, but you can also try sesame paste, creamy peanut, spicy leek, hoisin, sweet soy, chilli or just about any Chinese sauce.

Hot pot pairs very well with beer, and for non-alcoholic drinkers, try it with cold, sweetened Chinese herbal tea to help cool and soothe an extra spicy mouthful.

Lance Seeto is the Owner / Chef of Fiji’s fi rst island gastropub, KANU Restaurant in Nadi.

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