Right now I feel like Anthony Bourdain in one of his more exotic filming locales. My husband and I are in Asia and our tour guide here in Beijing, Jack, spent hours with us traveling to and from sites and talking excitedly about food. I feel comfortable calling Jack a foodie; after all, he can rattle off the dishes he likes to cook at home so fast it will leave your head spinning. I asked him if he would take us to experience a local Chinese meal, and the next thing I knew we were driving to the mall! Just when I thought he had misunderstood my request, the mall opened itself up to everything a foodie could hope for: Jack lead us down the escalator to a group of restaurants and what awaited us was nothing like an American food court. Here, Jack explained, we would discover the joy of lunching over a traditional Chinese hot pot.
We gathered around a table with a cooking unit in the center. The server immediately topped the burner with a large pot divided in the center that held curry and mushroom flavored broths. Another waiter placed food platters around the table and handed out chopsticks. First, there were trays of rolled, thin sliced beef (chicken and seafood were an option). Next comes huge platters of veggies and tofu. On these were artistically displayed leaves of cabbage, spinach and lettuce, thinly sliced pieces of yam, cucumber and radishes, needle mushrooms and tiny delights like wedges of tofu, raw fish, and crab meatballs. Lastly, we were treated to dishes of noodles: oodles of noodles made from soy, green beans and wheat.
There were two condiment bowls before us, brimming with sesame and peanut sauce. Jack instructed us to add a generous pinch of fresh cilantro, a pour of dark vinegar, fresh garlic and green onions. While we waited for the broths to boil, he shared the history of the dish. The story goes that Mongolian soldiers in the midst of battle used their large, metal helmets for pots. They foraged for any ingredients they could find and cooked everything over a compact fire.
Sounds tasty, right? I KNOW!
Our chopsticks poised, we placed the meat into the broth. Jack, ever patient, made us wait exactly four minutes, or until the “germs were killed” before we scooped the meat from the broth and plunged it into our condiment bowls. The taste is … daring. The meat was fatty and rich, but the broth was light and highly seasoned. The condiment bowl was SO fresh. After relishing the meat we plunged the veggies into the broth. Both the broth and the condiment bowl were utterly transformed! The broth is a bit richer from the meat and the condiment bowl a bit lighter from the broth. Jack explained that the reason it all tastes so amazing, is the method and order to our dining. Eat the meat first because it heats up and energizes the body, then the vegetables cool the system and the noodles satisfy and soothe.
I have to say—and I think my husband agrees—that this wonderful meal was a fast two hours; so enjoyable we hardly realized that much time had passed. At the end of our meal we pushed our chairs back, turned in our chopsticks, and thanked Jack for feeding us something that HIT THE POT!