It's cold outside and it's cold inside. It's just plain cold right now. When it's cold, it's time to bring out the hot pot, also known at a lot of places as Shabu Shabu. Not only is it a convenient way to cook with very little prep time, it also serves as a heater for my chilly dinning room.
It's very simple to prepare. We have a half and half pot. A lot of people do a spicy and a non-spicy soup. We instead did a tomato and non-tomato soup instead. Unlike a lot of fancy restaurants, we don't do anything fancy to the soup base, just water and salt. On one side we threw in a bunch of tomatoes right away so they would be boiled to smithereens to flavor the soup. The other side we just left it natural and let the food we add eventually flavor the soup. We just prefer it this way. By the end of the meal the soup would be way pretty rich with just a plain water base so it's not absolutely necessary to make the soup so fancy to begin with. It could add to the taste if you prefer a specific flavoring.
With hot pot, we can add all the things we want or just a very few items. It's almost like a left over casserole except with using a bunch of random raw meats and veggies. It's pretty inexpensive and makes the dinning experience just a bit more fun. It also forces you to actually sit at the table a little longer and get some conversations going since you have to be there to cook your own foods.
We always have a plate of raw beef to add to the soup. Beef cooks extremely fast and is just perfect with hot pot. Chicken is good too, but it's much harder to control in the cooking cause it can get overcooked rather easily. We don't get the expensive Shabu Shabu meat that's thinly cut by machines. Yeah those do cook easier but they do also cost a lot more. Instead we thinly cut the beef by hand, marinate it with some soy sauce and some cornstarch. The chicken was also thinly sliced by hand and marinated with salt and a tad bit of cornstarch.
We also got some other items to add to the pot. We got shrimp, one of my family's favorite, squids, sea cucumbers, fried tofu and normal tofu plus a few different veggies. Shrimp is a common thing to add to a hot pot, but I'm just not a fan of boiled shrimp. It just doesn't do it for me. Yes, it taste still pretty good when you dip them in a chilly peppered soy sauce, but I'm just not a fan. This is totally a personal preference though. Squids are good for hot pots, the small ones at least. They were very fresh and had a crunch in them. Dip them in a bit of satay sauce with soy sauce and it's just perfect.
With the sea cucumber, we had a bunch of them soaked in water to get them soft before actually putting them in the hot pot. It takes a long time to prep sea cucumbers and this was actually our first time giving this a try. It really shouldn't be used in a hot pot. Sea cucumbers really have no taste of their own, just a jelly texture. It absorbs the flavors of whatever else it's cooked in. Because of this, especially towards the beginning of the hot pot meal when the soup is still very light in taste, the sea cucumber pretty much had no taste to them. Even in the end, the soup is just not thick enough as a way to add real flavor to the sea cucumbers.
I love tofu. I love the deep fried tofu and the normal tofu. No hot pot would be complete without it. I normally prefer having both the fried tofu as well as silky tofu. With the fried tofu, the soup is absorbed into the tofu because it's pretty hollow on the inside. So you'd have to be very careful when eating them as to void burning your tongue. I prefer the really silky tofu for the texture. I like it sliding like silk in my mouth. But that also can lead to burning of your throat if you're not careful. Some people like firmer tofu. We had both tonight. Firm tofu is nice when it's cooked long enough to really absorb the flavor of the soup. We ended up with some cheap tofu so it wasn't as silky as it could be. But it was still good.
We had a bit of veggies on the side and udon for carbs. We switch it up between udon, rice noodles and various cuts of vermicelli noodles at hot pot. As with veggies, just grab your favorite kinds of veggies from the market and cook them. You really can't go too wrong with most vegetables. The only thing to consider is if you get veggies that are more fragrant than others that some of your diners may not like. I say eat what you like and avoid what you don't. For the most part it really doesn't matter.
No hot pot would be complete without seasoning. The easiest to make at home would be adding soy sauce to Chinese barbecue sauce, which is also known as satay sauce. But there's a lot of other variations that is commonly done. You can add sesame sauce, sesame oil, peanut butter sauce, peanut butter oil, vinegar, fish sauce, hoisin sauce and pretty much any other sauce you can find in the Chinese market. you could theoretically use anything if you like the taste. One thing that used to be done a lot is to mix all this sauce with a raw egg. Then you would dip your cooked meat and veggies into the egg sauce, pull it out and then eat it. It cools down the meat and keeps your mouth from being burnt. This actually taste very good, but a lot of people stopped doing this because of salmonella scare.
For me, hot pot can be as lavish as you want or as simple and easy as you like. I've had hot pot with crab, live shrimp still jumping around, peeing shrimp, all sorts of different kinds of fish, an assortments of fish and meat balls, a huge range of vegetables and mushrooms, goose intestines, tons of different cuts of meats, Japanese fishcake and pretty much anything you can find in a Chinese supermarket. I've enjoyed it with upwards of thirty or so people at a church function and as few as three people at home many times in the past. It's one of those meals that can't really go wrong no matter what you do. It's just putting the food in the boiling water; take them out when they look cooked; eat. If you're afraid of germs, you can use separate chopsticks to cook with and to eat with. Oh yeah, you do need to learn to use chopsticks if you want to be effective with a hot pot meal. Forks just isn't going to cut it.