-by Ernie Diaz
It’s both a rite of passage and a group-dining fixture. From the steamy, cavernous Xiao Fei Yang restaurant chain to the up-scale Hai Di Lao, hot pot still packs restaurants full, even in these recession-hit times.
And rightly so. A certain magic interactivity marks the hot pot meal. Not only beef slices and mushrooms, but also exotic items like duck blood and pig brains populate hot pot menus. A bubbling cauldron takes center stage at the table, a live flame underneath.
When the items arrive, the spirit of do-it-yourself, catch-as-catch-can enlivens the party. Even those proving their multicultural sensitivity by eating jellied blood have the assurance that five minutes in boiling broth will leech much of the ‘distinctive’ flavor. And there’s always the ma jiang to dip in, savory sesame sauce capable of making old shoe leather palatable.
But hot pot’s strengths are also its weaknesses. Fish ball and bone marrow alike lose most of their essence to the boiling water. By the time that errant crab stick gets fished from the bottom and dipped in ma jiang, the only thing to distinguish it from a hunk of dried tofu is its texture.
This inherent flaw is addressed but by no means remedied with the heaps of red pepper usually mixed in to the broth. The burn factor assuages the 99% of Chinese people who believe something can only be tasty if it hurts the tongue. The few dissenting, including many foreigners, can ask that the pot be divided into spicy and non-spicy halves. Still, the hot pot experience is a uni-flavored affair. Its purgative effects are small solace to the regular.
Enter dry pot, an alternative that removes boiling water from the equation. The same sundry list of ingredients await your orchestration – diced potato and yam, thin slices of flesh from all that goes on four legs and much that goes on two, innards, outers, and pretty much any product of photosynthesis.
Granted, you’re foregoing that proactive element of dropping ingredients into the soup. The kitchen takes care of that for you. The giant bowl arrives at your table with everything pre-cooked to perfection. There are worse fates.
For starters, you don’t have to worry about whether the chopsticks going in your mouth are the same ones you just used to handle raw lamb. No more prodding the primordial soup for a piece of mushroom and having to settle for a slice of lotus before fellow diners notice your lack of skill. No more drip-drying your catch yet still turning your end of the table into a sodden mess.
The greatest argument for dry over hot pot, however, is the flavor. Hot pot establishments have spent eons concocting proprietary blends of spices with which to flavor their broth. Standards such as garlic, ginger and scallions are mixed in with dozens of obscure flavorings, many without English names. To what end? All is lost to scalding water, red pepper, and the conciliatory tang of ma jiang. No wonder the hot pot establishments of old would add pinches of opium to the broth to hook diners.
Dry pot employs the same array of different seasonings, but their lack of dilution reveals the genius of the concoctions. Westerners know that a well-thought-out sandwich beats eating the individual ingredients, hands-down. Salami and cheese, some sliced tomato, mayo and mustard, fluffy bread, the synergy drives a significant share of global food services.
Now imagine the flavor potential of forty-seven different herbs, spices, and other seasonings. This was the number given by the manager of a dry pot restaurant overflowing recently at dinnertime, while competing venues nearby had ten tables empty for every one occupied, even the hot pot joint. No matter what’s ordered, it all settles into a tangy, savory, salty, fragrant, pungent, divine blend, thanks to the spice combo, otherwise lost in a flood of hot water.
For the less subtle, tongue abuse is still an option with dry pot. At least four and as many as seven levels of red pepper indulge everyone from the weekend chipper to the hardened Sichuanese la jiao junky. Whether you go pepper-free or seven-alarm blaze, cold beer compliments no known Chinese food better, overwhelmed taste buds screaming in relief as they’re soothed by frosty suds.
The foregoing is no pitch for dry pot. It’s acknowledgment of a new trend. Before too long, the centuries-old argument of who invented hot pot – Beijing, Sichuan, or Mongolia – will be irrelevant. Just as the five years of Korean BBQ fever finally abated, hot pot mania is on the wane, while its more savory cousin dry pot is on the ascendant. Think of it as culinary Darwinism in action.