Traditional Chinese medicine is a mind-numbingly complex, and yet artfully simple, way of a looking at the physical and spiritual health of a human being. Very generally, it is based on the philosophical belief that the universe is saturated with constantly-flowing energy (called chi), and that our bodies are a universe unto themselves, with our own chi (“life force” or “vitality”).
We are healthy when our chi — energy — is in balance. Sickness is caused when our energy is out of balance, and traditional Chinese medicine prescribes various treatments to nudge our chi back in the right direction. Acupuncture, meditation, herbal remedies and food therapies are a few examples.
I think it’s fair to say that Americans, in general, don’t subscribe to the idea of chi. And if we did, it would be wildly out of balance, especially as it relates to food and nutrition. When we get sick, an obvious response would be to consume natural foods like fruits and vegetables (indeed, this is a tenet of traditional Chinese medicine) to restore balance and health. But in America, more often than not, we reach for a Z-Pak instead of an apple. Eating in general has become a competition to see how much food, regardless of its nutrition or restorative powers, we can shovel into our mouths. Regrettably, this competition is measured in rising rates of obesity and diabetes.
So be it. I’m not here to lecture you about how or what you should eat. There’s enough lecturing going on in the media about how fat and lazy Americans have become. But I will make a pitch for adding some semblance of balance to our lives, especially when it comes to eating. One way to do that is to seek out those dishes which are by equal measures delicious, filling, nourishing and restorative for both mind and body. A perfect example of this type of dish is known as Chinese hot pot (huo guo). Also referred to as Chinese fondue, steamboat, Mongolian hot pot, or shabu-shabu (Japanese), “hot pot” is both a dish and an eating experience that encourages balance in how and what we eat.
First and foremost — energy, chi and balance aside — hot pot is a delicious and filling meal. But it takes some effort and knowledge to get the most out of it. I know what you’re thinking: Americans don’t like food that comes with a user manual. Furthermore, we don’t like to go to a restaurant, spend our hard-earned money, and then have to cook the food ourselves. Fair enough. But with just a few tips and lessons, and a few trips to a hot pot restaurant, you’ll come to understand why hot pot is an ingrained culinary tradition in many parts of the world, and why it is a healthy remedy to a diet of fast food in enormous portions.
Here’s how hot pot works. You sit at a table which includes a heating element in the middle. In older restaurants, the heat source is an actual flame, often a propane burner. In the newer hot pot restaurants, an induction burner is used, where the heating element is cool to the touch but heats the pot through an electromagnetic current. In both cases, you have a control knob, like any stove top, to increase or decrease the level of heat.
Hot pot is made up of several basic elements: cooking broth, proteins (meat, seafood), noodles/tofu/mushrooms, vegetables, and dipping sauces. Your server will first ask you how spicy you want the broth to be. At its most basic, it could be “spicy” or “not spicy.” The actual hot pot itself is partitioned into two separate containers, so it is normal to get one spicy and one not spicy. The broth-filled hot pot is then brought to the table and heated to a boil. The other (raw) ingredients are brought out, and everyone at the table chooses what ingredients they want to cook.
A typical self-cooking process might go like this: add some vegetables (baby bok choy, lettuce) and tofu or mushrooms to the broth to allow them to cook. Ladle some of the broth into your individual soup bowl. Use the strainer ladle to cook the cellophane noodles in the broth, then add that to your bowl. Now use the tongs to pick up a piece of the thinly-sliced meat and dredge it in the boiling broth. It cooks fast! For beef, cooking time may be only 5-10 seconds. Add the cooked meat to your bowl. Now fish out the cooked vegetables, tofu and mushrooms, and add those ingredients. Add a few drops of a dipping sauce and mix it in. Use chopsticks to eat the meat and vegetables, then drink the broth from your bowl.
The process and experience of hot pot is healthy on many different levels. First, the ingredients are supremely fresh and, for the most part, unprocessed. The broth itself is a fragrant, pungent concoction chock-full of Chinese herbs that are both delicious and associated with medicinal and restorative qualities: scallions, whole cloves of garlic, ginger, ginseng, wolfberry, red dates, black cardamom, fox nut, Sichuan peppercorns, to name a few. Also, the fact that you cook your own food in small quantities forces you to slow down and eat at a leisurely pace – there’s no chance to shovel enormous portions of food into your mouth.
But there is also a spiritual, or more specifically social, aspect to hot pot. Traditionally you will share hot pot with a group of friends and/or family. The cooking procedure engenders lengthy meals, and thus time spent together. All kinds of conversation comes up as you slowly eat and drink; negotiations, queries, and goodwill offerings are part of the process: “Is that my bok choy?” “No, I put it in there a couple minutes ago, but you have it, I’ll cook some more.” The give-and-take, the cooperative cooking, the leisurely pace, and the inevitable laughing and conversation are undoubtedly restorative and good for our chi, such as it is, in both mind and body.
This blog entry was originally posted 27 October 2010 on the www.29-95.com website.