International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: China Cooking
Pot that is Hot
Have you ever asked yourself the question: What in fact has been
the greatest discovery since the discovery of sliced bread? I have
indeed asked myself this after various looseners (controversially,
I once thought it might have been the Sony Walkman (the good old
cassette one of course in the days when you had to fast forward
the tape past songs you were non too keen on!)).
Well, the greatest
thing since sliced bread is indeed the Hot pot (Pinyin: hu gu). Without
a shadow of a doubt the greatest culinary discovery I chanced upon on
following my arrival in Harbin, and something I am probably now addicted
to (in some mild way at least).
I was a winter arrival so it happens, so for me the place to be taken
to in those days (and my enduring image now etched in the brain) was
the hot pot restaurant, with the bubbling broth and the steamed-up windows
offsetting perfectly the bitter chill of the streets. So, when I think
of Harbin and its food culture, I think of the hot pot restaurant,
the good times and the cold. (For those Summer arrivals, the thinking
would be more along the lines of the smell and the smoke, the taste
and the bedlam (boisterous indeed) of the street Chuanr (you know those
lamb kebab stick things, plus other things on sticks) vendors, barmy
nights sitting on stools and relaxing (boozing) with the locals wearing
their Harbin T-shirts (as in they take their top off to reveal that
ubiquitous Hapi Beer Belly). One of my best-friends was a Summer arrival
so our concept of what Harbin is differs greatly, which to be honest
is one of the reasons I came here in the first place, the sharp contrast
between life in the Winter and in the Summer.
The pot that is hot: The flavoured boiling broth of happiness whereby
you lob in an assortment of sliced meats, sliced veggies and other bits
of bobs ((fungus, wontons, seafood to name but a few), the selection
can be aslong as a piece of string) as you choose, wait a wee-while
till it is cooked through, remove dexterously with your chopsticks and
dip into the dip of your choice (peanut sauce for sure). Knock back
a few cold ones at the same time and you are onto a winner for everybody.
One can and does argue the evening hot pot in some way replicates /
relaces the evening down the pub back in blighty (gotta use the imagination
a bit though).
What is there not too like about it? Exactly!
How many people have you met that say that dont like to go for
a hot pot? Exactly!
An outstanding eating concept no matter what style you plump for. And
there are indeed a few styles to choose from, including SiChuanese (check
a theasuarus to insert a new superlative for the adjective spicy)
to Mongolian (overloaded on the lamb), traditional Beijing to Muslim
influenced (a novel surprise indeed) .Traditional wood fired ones to
gas powered to the the electric hot plates, they are all available.
Individual pots or the large communal one.
After plodding the path on those cold winter days, when your eyeballs
are so painfully cold, the thought of hitting the hot pot makes one
go weak at the knees with stomach grumbling desire. For winter in Harbin
and hot pot go together like football and meat pies, like strawberries
and cream at Wimbledon, like a plughmans lunch a pint of cider
on a hot summers day in the beer garden of that pub you know down
by the canal. It is that well matched up.
So, where to go in Harbin for a good one? There are spades of places
to choose from in the city from pricey and posh to down right cheap
and dirty. Id say to you to pick up that phrasebook gathering
dust by the rice cooker and learn some Chinese, then go ask a passerby
for directions. If you are not that way inclined, ask a student for
For me, I have a few haunts I dabble in on a more than regular basis,
a couple to mention are LaoSiChuan hot pot, located on YiManJie
is worthy of the taxi ride (lovely big red pots of spiciness to dunk
those shards of lamb into), as is LaoDaoWai over on HuangHeJie
near the second campus of HIT university (atmospheric rooms they have
outback (really out the back!)). The best of the best though
is 9+9 Happiness, it is the place to get yourself a good
feed from people who seem to actually care you get a good feed. A small,
up-market restaurant located in the Development Area of NanGang district,
just off HongXiangLu it is, within throwing distance of Dragon Tower.
Ask around when you get to this area and youll find it easily
It is difficult for me to say no to hot pot you see, so
as my wife and I were strolling with the pushchair (strollerfor
our friends across the pond), we stumbled upon this newly opened place
that just looked (and more pertinently in the case of hot pots, smelt)
so wonderfully inviting, we popped our heads tentatively in the door
and were ushered to a pleasant little backroom / private room. Always,
and I do mean always, we go for the private room for no other reason
than avoiding those pesky smokers who light up in restaurants (Gulags
should be re-established for those who do so, a bit of RTL (Re-Education
Through Labour), never harmed anyone). Yep, I hate smokers who smoke
Plush was the word that sprang to the forefront of my mind,
for it was indeed a posh looking, well-decorated room in both its decor
and furniture. The boss type black leather loafing chairs
are quite the touch in comfort. More to the more, it had those lovely
golden coloured individual hot-pot devices that I do much prefer. Fueled
by parafin in this case too, a little intoxicating. A comprehensive
menu is available, with pictures for those whose local lingo stretches
no further than COLD beer and lamb. Service is spot on, sharp and subtle,
also noteworthy for the speediness of service (so many places in town
unfortunately have service staff that are akin to drugged up rhinos
in nature reserves).
We order our set list of dishes we never stray from; a plate of lamb
and a plate of beef (variety you see), a plate of carrots (pre pot snack),
a plate of potatoes and sweet-potatoes, a bowl of cabbage, some shrimp
paste balls, green noodles and a bit of fungus. Supplement it we do,
everytime with a new dish from the menu (last time we had some particularly
good fresh crab meat (not the cheap option this time as I was entertaining
guests)) to keep things fresh and interesting. Cold beer they do have,
(probably Baijiu too although we never touch it as it is the drink of
the devil as you probably are aware of) in a good selection. All dishes
are reasonably priced too, a group of 4 can eat heartily and have a
few cold ones for less than 200 RMB.
My own personal recommendation to finish off your meal is to poach an
egg in your pot which is now well-flavoured. The waitress might look
at you in a funny way when you order a raw egg, but they will comply
once theyve decided upon a price for the egg.
As winter approaches, I once more look fondly to those dark nights of
© Darren Skelton October 2009
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