Mongolian Hot Pot
Sometimes we need a reminder that eating is just as much about the cooking process as it is about taste. It’s about understanding the components of a dish, and how each changes with temperature. Marbled ruby and white strips of raw lamb become dark and chewy, releasing fat and flavor into broth. Twiggy bundles of glass noodles turn transluscent and slippery, as do crunchy half moons of daikon radish. Each vegetable, so pure on its own, stands readily to the savory heat of its sesame dipping sauce.
This is Chinese, or Mongolian, hot pot, so much less stodgy than the oil and cheese-laden fondue most people associate with winter. Hot pot ranges from the most casual—a communal pot—to classy, where each person has a small pot.
Hot Pot Paradise in Beijing, for example, allows you to choose a broth base, specific cuts of meat/seafood, vegetables, noodles or dumplings, and your dipping sauce. The décor is over the top, with waitresses coming by every half hour to refill your pots and relight the fire.
You can’t be in a rush when you eat this food. You linger as long as possible, taking sips of hot Chinese “yellow wine,” a rice liquor similar to sake, as you wait for the raw ingredients to cook. Munch on some sweet pickled garlic cloves while you’re at it.
You will leave full to bursting, with so much water sloshing in your stomach that you have to sit and digest anyway.
And yet, hot pot is just as easy to make at home (older post here)—all it requires is some chopping, washing, and mixing the sauce. The best part? You can dip whatever you want, as long as it isn’t something like a tomato that will fall apart.
Suggestions for ingredients:
Meat/protein: Lamb is typical in northern China, but almost any other meat works (higher fat is recommended to make the broth more flavorful, though).
Shrimp, fish, and other seafood are common, but in my opinion they’re a bit on the bland side. I’m pretty weary of the Taiwanese “fish balls” that remind me of gefilte fish.
In fact, you don’t need meat at all! I prefer to just use firm cubed tofu. You can also try freezing your tofu and defrosting before eating. The tofu changes texture, becoming a porous sponge that soaks up the broth and releases it into your mouth.
Vegetables: this is where you can have fun. Just keep in mind that some vegetables will take longer than others, and starchy ones like squash and potatos are usually not used. Some vegetables we used:
- Napa cabbage, sliced
- Pea shoots
- Slivered daikon radish
- Chinese winter melon
- Fresh shiitake mushrooms
- Baby bok choy
- Mung bean sprouts
Other stuff: Noodles and dumplings cook just as easily in broth. You could go all out here and throw in wheat, rice, or buckwheat noodles, or maybe some frozen dumplings, but they’re pretty filling. I would stick to cellophane noodles (made with mung beans).
Sauce: The most important part. A trip to your local Chinese grocery store is definitely necessary. Substitutions are just not going to taste the same, but you’re welcome to make up your own sauce.
Classic Sesame Sauce
(Goes with any hot pot, but especially lamb)
- 1 jar Chinese sesame paste (NOT THE SAME AS TAHINI)
- 1/4 cup water, to start
- Chinese seafood paste
- Dou fu ru, a red fermented tofu
- Jiu cai hua, Chinese chive flower paste
- Pour the sesame paste into a bowl and mix thoroughly. The oil will have separated out, but keep whisking until incorporated, diluting with water as you go.
- Drizzle in equal amounts (to taste) of the following three pastes.
- Serve with chili paste or cilantro, allowing each person to add more of each kind of sauce.
FOOG (Father of Octopus Gourmet) style sauce
(For a seafood/vegetarian hot pot)
- Dried seaweed, slivered
- Dried shrimp, optional
- Hot water
- Chinese seafood paste
- Dou fu ru, see above
- Jiu cai hua, see above
- Sesame oil
- Chili paste
- 4 cloves of garlic, diced very fine
- Mix pastes, seaweed, and shrimp with some hot water, mashing into a smooth sauce. Add chopped garlic and rest of ingredients. Again, this is all to taste!
It is very likely that you will have to refill your sauce bowl/make more, since the vegetables will soak it up and it will get pretty diluted. If it gets diluted enough, feel free to pour it into your pot and drink it as a soup.
Hot pot is so good that I eat it in the 104 degree Beijing heat. That should tell you something.