We had just reached Hong Kong from Macau by ferry. By the time we reached our apartment in the heart of Mongkok we were exhausted and were craving to have lunch. So we strolled out to the busy street in front of our apartment hoping to find something decent to eat.
We crossed a street when some colourful food pictures caught my eye. The text was in Chinese, but I tried talking to the girl at the counter and all she would say was “hot pot”. We hadn’t the faintest clue to what that meant and one of us asked if rice would be available and she nodded her head vigorously. So we all agreed to walk into the restaurant. By the time we went up the elevator, they had a table for five and a baby chair ready. It was impressive management.
The restaurant seemed rather nice and there was just another couple in there. We got a view of the sky scrapers that defined the city from where we sat. As we settled down, there was a buzz and they suddenly found a waitress who could speak English. She handed out a menu with pictures instead of the regular Chinese menu and pointed out all the vegetarian stuff for my friend. And then there was a checklist with lots of tickboxes. It was pretty confusing. So we picked a “chicken and coconut spicy” and “Lemon and coriander vegetarian” from the list that was shown to us, presuming they were gravies or curries. But then we were asked to choose some more things off the menu to eat. As predicted we chose rice and my friend’s kid wanted noodles. Plus we ordered some spinach flavoured fish balls.
It was then that I noticed that each of the tables had a central depression lined with metal. I presumed it was a grill, the kind that you saw in Barbeque Nation. But I didn’t pay further heed to it. We were enjoying the Chinese floral tea which was being constantly poured into our cups.
Another English speaking waiter came to us to explain that we could savour some of the sauces that were placed separately. We went there and found an assortment of sauces, including soy, satay, oyster sauce, as well as chilli oil. Also present there were bowls of roasted garlic, roasted peanuts, chopped coriander, spring onions and several other condiments which we didn’t understand. We all mixed and matched and brought back combinations we liked. We were handed over aprons to wear.
Imagine our surprise when minutes later, two waiters delicately fitted in a two part container containing broths in two colours in the middle of the table. One part of the container had the chicken-coconut broth while the second part had the vegetarian broth. We were told to wait until the broth started bubbling.
As if eating with chopsticks wasn’t stressful enough, deciding what to order to eat with the broth was more confusing. After a round of questions and answers, where we might have sounded super silly to the hotel staff, we figured out what to order. We were supposed to order things that we could ourselves cook while the broth boiled. And so some Udon noodles were ordered, as were some veggies. It now made sense.
Once we figured out how and what to eat, the next complex thing was fishing out what we had dunked into the broth with chopsticks and Chinese style ladles. The aprons we wore suddenly seemed very comfortable. I’m sure we made fools out of ourselves with how we ate, and the hotel staff must have been in splits with our confusion, but we have to say that everything was super delicious. The concept of cooking and eating together was fantastic. And the broths tasted really good.
As soon as I returned from Hong Kong I searched the internet and found how we had goofed up on hot pot etiquette. But it doesn’t matter. We discovered something different about a new country. It was such an interesting experience which encapsulated the ethos of communal dining! Here is what I learnt from my reading:
Hot pot is a Chinese cooking technique where a simmering pot of soup is placed at the dining table, while guests choose from a variety of ingredients, which they cook themselves in the broth and eat. Typical hot pot accompaniments include thinly sliced meat, leafy vegetables like bok choy or spinach, mushrooms, noodles, dumplings, fish balls, egg, tofu, or seafood. The cooked food is usually eaten with a dipping sauce. It is believed that sitting around a hot pot, talking, cooking and eating together enhances warmth and bonds between people.
There are different flavours of broths. One of the most famous variations is the Chongqing hot pot to which Sichuan pepper is added. The typical dipping sauce contains sesame oil and is mixed with crushed fresh garlic and chopped spring onions. The Sichuan version is supposed to be more fiery.
The video below gives a fair idea of how to eat at a hot pot restaurant. Wish we had seen it before we visited Hong Kong!
If it is any indication of how much we enjoyed hot pot, within a week of coming back home, I ordered a small hot pot with grill from Amazon. Last night we had our first hot pot dinner with my own version and flavour of hot pot broth. Experimental it was, with modifications to suit the Indian palate, but I have to say it was an immensely successful experiment leaving us satiated.