In The Mood For Hotpot
Words by Panda Wong
Nothing invokes the nostalgia of childhood like our favourite food. For Panda, hotpot is the most flavoursome of dishes and it is also so much more — it is comfort, it is home and it is pride in her cultural heritage.
In 2017 when I was living in London, I was on a double decker bus. Gripped by alcohol-induced longing, I purchased a hotpot on eBay. Two weeks later (when I had forgotten about my late-night shopping spree), my parcel arrived. My hotpot was of relatively cheap quality and divided into two sections, yin and yang style. It came with an array of tools for cooking, stirring and extracting. I made a trip to Soho — an almost two-hour commute back and forth on the tube — and triumphantly returned laden with hotpot ingredients. Every month after that, I would host a hotpot dinner, inviting new friends and trying out new recipes for dumplings, noodles and even mochi. Those cold London nights filled with the cinematic steam of the hotpot and the enthusiastic splashes of my friends throwing ingredients into the broth are among some of my favourite memories from my time spent there. I loved living in London, but hotpot helped make it feel like home.
Hotpot, (火鍋) in Mandarin, is basically a shared pot of heated broth in the centre of a table. Everyone sharing the meal participates in its cooking — it’s basically a cook-as-you-go dish. Raw meat, seafood, vegetables etc. are thrown into the heated soup and when the food is cooked, it is fished out and eaten with a sauce that the diner will prepare themselves from the sauce bar (components include sesame paste, chilli oil, crushed peanuts, the list goes on!) It is usually eaten in the winter because of its warming properties but can be enjoyed all year around. You can eat it in hotpot restaurants, but it is one of the easiest ways to put on a banquet at home.
Hotpot is versatile by its very nature. It was originally conceived by labourers around the Yangtze river as a way to make cheap offcuts of meat delicious by plunging them into pots of fat and chilis. This adaptability has been retained over time. My younger sister used to cook makeshift hotpot in her boarding school dorm by plugging in an illicit rice cooker in place of a hot pot. Along with her friends, she would cook ingredients in this rice cooker after lights out, playing mahjong into the night. Chinese YouTube star Ms Yeah employs a similar resourcefulness in her video ‘E04 What?! Make hot pot with water dispenser? Unbelievable. But she made it’ by stealing the office water cooler and turning it into her own personal hotpot. Surrounded by bored office workers, she puts together an elaborate hotpot feast in a sterile corporate environment. Though obviously a joke (albeit a very well-executed joke) it demonstrates hotpot’s true DIY nature.
These days, there are as many hotpot variations and cultures as there are hotpot restaurants. Hai Di Lao, one of China’s largest hotpot chains, offers free shoe shining, massages, manicures and even origami entertainment while people wait in line. They also offer ‘noodle dances’ which involve a noodle chef coming out to the table and performing an elaborate series of body movements while stretching out dough into noodles. I recently went to David’s Hotpot in Melbourne where there are cartoon shaped lumps of lard (think: Kung Fu Panda, Hello Kitty, Doraemon) that melt dramatically into the boiling broth. There is even a machine where you can press a button and it will douse you in a sweet, citrus-y spray as an attempt to freshen you up post-hotpot. Waiters at David’s sometimes hand out roses to patrons waiting for a table on busy weekend nights.
Even without all these extra frills of roses and manicures, there is an undeniable cinematic element to watching food cook in front of your eyes, the hazy rising steam and the fluid motion of hands and utensils across a table that is reminiscent of an Edward Yang or Wong Kar Wai film.
In 2018, vegan activist @jonaweinhofen tweeted an image of a boiling hotpot accompanied by ‘Meat eaters be like “vegan food looks and tastes gross” … And then eat something that looks like leftover dishwater’. This scorching racism was met with responses that highlighted the hotpot’s significance in notions of family, culture and community. @reappropriate tweets in response:
… hot pot was also how I learned about how to collaborate with others. Hot pot is a communal dish: all of us working together to make a good broth. I learned generosity — giving others the good cuts of meats or veggies I fished out of the broth … Love in my family was often expressed that way: finding a good piece of food and giving it to someone else at the table.
This tweet was mirrored in sentiment by multiple other responses on the thread.
Reading @jonaweinhofen’s tweet, I was reminded of how food — core to a culture’s tradition, survival and connection — can be reduced and denigrated through racist notions of palatability. The attack on hotpot echoes the way Chinese food has been vilified in a white society. Similar to the demonisation of MSG or the way Chinese food has been appropriated by white restauranteurs such as Lucky Lee’s, who whitewash and repackage it as ‘healthy’ as though Chinese food is innately unhealthy. Hotpot isn’t for everyone, let alone a dominantly white society. It can reach incredibly spicy heights. Offal is a common ingredient. The pervasiveness of the smell announces itself in a room before the person even enters. It’s reductive to say that food is core to self-acceptance — of ourselves and our identities — but in the same breath, it is often the easiest way to access one’s own culture and memories. The more that I connect with myself and my Chinese heritage, the more comfortable I am with smelling intensely of hotpot or eating foods that are considered ‘weird’. In fact, I absolutely live for it.
Melbourne is full of places where I can relive my hotpot nostalgia. Many a loud, long dinner has been spent at David’s Hotpot where they play my mum’s favourite Chinese music into the night. I had my birthday last year at House of Delight, an all-you-can-eat hotpot buffet in faux-palazzo surroundings. We ate in a private room in which Lady Gaga was repeatedly pumped, and where we each had our own hotpot, stuffed to the brim with noodles, vegetables and dumplings. China Chilli is also a delicious hotpot option, where you can order fried mantou buns to counteract the searing spice. The combination of the soft, cloud-like buns with the oily richness of hotpot is actually out of this world. Instead of Christmas dinner (a white people holiday as my mum calls it) my family always opt for a ‘festive hotpot’. We usually go to Springvale or Glen Waverley to pick up ingredients, but sometimes I’ll stop by Yang’s on Russell Street in the city for delicacies like quail eggs, dried tofu skin and kimchi dumplings. I have fond memories of my family in the kitchen, our hands caked with flour and water as we folded dumplings to add to our hotpot.
I love how after eating hotpot, the smell of Sichuan chilli peppers and garlic deeply permeate my hair and clothes, a smell only removable by a long hot shower. (A testament to the distinctiveness of hotpot smell is a recent event in Jiangsu where a criminal was identified due to smelling like a particular type of hotpot.) I love the way the peppercorns numb my lips, giving them a delicious and free cosmetic plumping effect (what my friends and I sometimes refer to as ‘hotpot collagen’). I love the sheer extra-ness of hotpot — Hello Kitty shaped mounds of lard that melt into the broth or a Barbie doll wrapped with a meat dress à la Lady Gaga 2010. I love the almost heady effects of eating copious amounts of chilli in a short period of time to the background sound of Chinese pop. The whole eating experience is uniquely turbo and fun.
This love that I have for hotpot and its fragrant, spicy loudness feels like some kind of metaphor for the ways in which I have been coming to terms with my Chinese-ness and my newfound desires to share my culture with the ones I love. Hotpot is a means for me to be generous with my culture, care and time. Every time I see the aftermath of a hotpot well enjoyed — chilli oil splatters, scrunched up tissues, stacks of smeared dishes — it might be a cliché, but nothing warms my deadened millennial heart more. It speaks to me of the intimacies of sharing food with those you love, and of food’s potential for connection, nourishment and pleasure. As Ms Yeah, YouTube hotpot extraordinaire, says ‘Life is not always fun, but we can try to create more by ourselves.’
A Guide to the Best Hotpot in Melbourne
279 La Trobe Street, Melbourne
Arguably Melbourne’s most famous hotpot destination, be prepared to wait for a table. David’s comes complete with plastic bibs (to prevent chilli oil splatter), lanterns overhead and a menu that includes everything from the standards (sliced tofu, sliced beef) through to the acquired (ox penis, duck intestine). Not to be missed!
206 Bourke Street, Melbourne
From all-you-can-eat buffet for lunch through to à la carte for dinner, China Chilli boasts an extensive menu dedicated to all things spicy. Mixing the traditional with the modern, you order via iPad menus while enjoying the view of carved wooden wall panels and black-and-white vintage photographs. Noisy, chaotic and wonderful.
House of Delight
Level 1, 206 Bourke Street, Melbourne and 52 Montclair Avenue, Glen Waverley
This place lives up to its name — a huge restaurant with chandeliers overhead, embroidered chairs and everything from hotpot buffet to dim sum. The food is fresh, the beer is cold and the service is fast. What more could you want?!