All pictures take: Beijing, China.
Date: December 10, 2010.
Camera: BlackBerry Curve.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Beijing, eat Beijing hotpot!
Tonight one of my fellow travellers and I were lucky enough to share an authentic meal with our tour guide. Karen is Chinese, so knows her way around a menu, and because hotpot is one of her favourite dishes, us novices were in expert hands!
We ate at a popular chain restaurant that specialises in Beijing hotpot -- so popular we had to wait about 15 minutes to be seated. The place was heaving with young hip student types from Beijing, most of them seated on high stools around a bar, with individual hotpots in front of them.
Because there were three of us, we opted for a table and we had one hotpot between us, which sat in the middle. That's our hotpot pictured above. Usually the entire hotpot is filled with spicy ingredients, but ours came with a separate non-spicy section, just in case our Western taste buds could not cope with all the fiery Chinese chili.
The pot was turned on and began bubbling away. The effect was a bit like a sauna, as the steam rose and created a small cloud over our table.
Plate upon plate, loaded with fresh ingredients, then began to arrive. These included lettuce leaves, sweet potato, tofu skin (that's the stuff that looks like fat noodles on the left), quail eggs, corn on the cob, mushrooms, vermicelli noodles, tofu squares, thinly sliced fish ...
and shrimps. (Meat eaters can also indulge in lamb, pork, beef and chicken, which generally comes rolled up in wafer-thin slices.)
These were then placed into the hotpot, as and when we wanted, to cook in the bubbling liquid.
Retrieving the cooked ingredients was a delicate art, but a ladle was supplied to make it that little bit easier. I loved fishing around in the hotpot to see what treasures I could discover. It felt like winning the lottery whenever I came upon a delicious quail egg!
Notice how everything is bubbling away and there's a lot of steam. This probably explains why Beijing hotpot is really popular in the winter months: it's a great way to warm up when the temperature outside is below zero!
Once I'd fished out a couple of ingredients I would dump them into my small bowl, which was filled with fresh coriander and sesame sauce. This is supposed to help temper the heat of the chili, but it also adds a really lovely nutty flavour to your meal.
The local beer, Yanjing, also helps!
The aftermath is a bit messy. You simply dump everything you don't eat -- for example, shrimp shells and corn cobs, direct onto the table. And there's plenty of sauce and chili splatters all over the paper table cloth. We even left noodles -- slippery little buggers to pick up with chopsticks -- on the floor!
Of course the best thing about Beijing hotpot is the sound of the pot bubbling away and the steam rising off the top. But I also loved the way that cooking your own food, and the fun of doing so with other people, became part of the eating experience.
I've come to appreciate that the Chinese are big on communal eating -- no-one orders separate dishes, everything is shared and there's a lot of loud talking and fun to be had in the process. It makes me wonder why we don't do this more often in the West. It gives you a chance to try all kinds of different foods, rather than sticking to one plate.
If you're ever in Beijing -- or Sechuan province, which is famous for its fiery Sechuan hotpot -- this is one experience not to be missed.