The bubbling brew
If anyone dares you to try a hotpot in Shanghai, just say no. Really. That is unless you have a bit of an inside track on where to go, and are toting the proper anti-inflammatory equipment. Fortunately, my baptism by fire (aka a massive amount of suffering) has provided me with quite a hang of the ropes so I am here to assist.
The hotpot is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. An absolutely boiling, bubbling cauldron of heat in the form of temperature and spice generally filled generously with anything from chicken to beef, abalone to pigs feet, melon to fish and anything else the chef can find in his pantry.
It looks curiously like a witch’s brew gone bad, and can sometimes smell even worse. It’s a dish that’s more than 1000 years old, originated by Mongol warriors who would create this concoction and cook it in their helmets, and has gradually taken on multiple forms of evolution depending on the location in Asia.
Our hotpot experience, though it happened in Shanghai, is universal from what we hear so heed the following tips when preparing for battle and you’ll ace the dish like an all-star.
- The smaller the restaurant, the hotter the pot. We found this to be a local rule of thumb, capped by what looked like an old Grandmother’s house that doubled as a small eatery, delivering a firebomb of a hotpot with spices so hot I’m sure they’d burn a hole through the table. How the elderly chef prepared it, I’ll never know. Want to dip your proverbial toe in the hotpot waters? Try a larger, more upscale restaurant that has varying varieties of spice options, beginning with entry level.
- Sit down. For Pete’s sake, be in a seated position when the pot is wheeled to your table. If the smoke doesn’t blow you over and singe your face while hurling you backwards, the smell will.
- Wear gloves. Better yet, don’t touch anything. The spice level is enough to singe a hole through concrete.
- Prep appropriately. Though yogurt and milk may not readily be available, be sure you line up copious amounts of water and some sort of starch to quell the burn. Copious amounts. Your mouth may feel as if its engulfed in flames, and the more cooling devices you have on hand, the better.
- Make limited plans for the next day. Your stomach may not be in top form but you’ll feel like a champ in 24 hours’ time.
Why do people enjoy this modern form of torture? Because it’s also delicious, it’s unique, it’s something that should be tackled when in this beautiful city and its environs. Nobody ever said becoming an experienced foodie was easy, and though the conflagration is fierce, the bragging rights are worth every heat-filled bite.