Day 36: Land of the Eternal Blue Sky

The Mongolian Empire, which claimed land from China to eastern Europe, was the largest contiguous land empire of all time.  This vast mass of land created a fusion of cultures as trade along the famous "silk road" flourished bringing wares and ideas from east to west and west to east.  Travelers such as Ibn Battutah and Marco Polo traveled these roads and brought back stories and spices which teased the minds of Europeans.  It was tales of these far away lands that led European explorers to go and see for themselves what these lands had to offer.

Mongolian Empire and Hot Pot

While the dish referred to as "Hot Pot" is ubiquitous throughout Asia it has its roots in Mongolia.  Mongolian soldiers, it is believed, started this dish as a way to stay warm.  With a simple broth, meat and vegetables were mixed in as available.  If the legend is true, the soldiers would make the stew in their helmets and spend several hours around the fire, basking in the steam, slowly cooking and sipping on their food.

How to Hot Pot

Don't be intimidated by the menagerie of choices you find at a hot pot restaurant.  We are here to make this simple for you.  Hot Pot is essentially Asian fondu (or fondu is essentially Swiss Hot Pot--depending on which direction you are coming from).   Everything is customizable down to the broth, dipping sauces, meats, other animal byproducts, and vegetables.  It might be easiest, if it is your first time or if you are going alone, to simply try whatever "lunch special" is offered since it will usually be a well rounded set of options and then you will learn what you like for next time.

Utensils

Depending on the restaurant the broth will be served in a single pot that cooks on a burner at your table.  Some restaurants will serve it in a "yin-yang" pot so that you can try two soup flavors.   Typically, hot pot is eaten with chopsticks and the assistance of a single spoon to assist with the broth.  The foods are loaded into and out of the pots using tongs and ladles.  Try not to use your personal chopsticks reaching into our out of the main pot, especially if you are dining with others.

Broths

Most places offer the basic two broths, which are original and spicy (Szechuan).  We enjoy Shabu House (a small eatery tucked away in the labyrinth at 9889 Bellaire) because they offer six different flavors.  Once you have tried the first two, check out their curry or kimchi broths.

Sauces

There are many sauces and extras that can be added.  These range from hot (spicy) oil, to peanut sauce or, my favorite, sesame paste (it works well with lamb).  Experiment and find what you like.

Meats

The basic meat choices are lamb or beef, but Hot Pot is a good opportunity to try new things.  Most places offer a list of seafoods (shrimp, squid, octopus), animal "byproducts" (coagulated blood chunks, eyes, tripe, and intestine), and other dumplings.

Others

There are a host of vegetable sides from lettuces and spinaches to a collection of mushrooms.  I am not a mushroom person, but the enoki mushrooms are great. Several styles of tofu (the best is the fried one) are also available.  Also experiment with the noodles; there are rice noodles, udon noodles, ramen noodles, and others.

Some Final Tips

  • Start with the noodles.  Cook the noodles first and put them in the bottom of your bowl.  All of the other flavors then add to the noodles which can then be mixed in and eaten or saved for last.
  • Tear up lettuces by hand before putting them in the pot.  This will make eating them easier when they come out.
  • Experiment with Sauces.  There are many options and they are all great.  It really comes down to personal preference.
  • Plan it out.  Part of a successful meal is planing things out so that you don't put everything in at once and lose your heat, nor do you sit there waiting on something to cook.  Different items take different cook times.  The meats, since sliced paper thin, usually only take ten seconds or so.  Any potato or yam like sides usually take longer.  Learn to look ahead and put some things in the side while you cook the faster things.
  • Go with friends.  Hot pot is a communal experience.  Take your time and enjoy the experience.