My dear friend Steevie is leaving Canberra for Northern NSW this week. His parents are ageing and unless one of the kids steps up, the farm – in the family for generations – will have to be sold. So he’s taken a year’s leave from work to test drive the farming life, pasture fattening steers and breeding bush chooks. It doesn’t hurt that the property, at the foot of the border ranges, is lush, well watered and drop dead gorgeous.
Thinking selfishly, there are some of Steevie’s friends who we know quite well, but not really well yet. We decided it was time to have them over for dinner before he left. No point not doing it properly, but little kids make elaborate plans difficult, so Sichuanese hotpot it was. All you have to do is make the broth and cut up some things to cook in it at the table. Of course, you can do this the simple way or the food nerd way. I chose the food nerd way.
The night before, pour yourself a large glass of wine and sit down and top and tail a bag of mung bean sprouts. If you’ve grown them yourself, you needn’t bother. Of course you needn’t bother anyway, who am I kidding, but if you’ve the time and – oh, say some Gordon Ramsay taped off the telly – it’s quite pleasurable. I also find the appearance vastly superior, but ymmv. I think they’re called “silver sprouts” in restaurant dishes when prepared this way, but that might just be in Hong Kong.
I also prepared the hotpot liquor the night before, which had advantages and disadvantages. If anything the flavour improves from the wait and it’s very easy to reheat. However you should know that in the morning you will have to stare down something like this:
Those big red slugs are chillies, and the rest is a blanket of dripping. Yep, good honest old fashioned dripping. There’s a huge slug of vegetable oil in there as well but that solid blanket on top is dripping. This is not what we parents of primary school children like to call “an everyday food”.
I also made a chilli-free chicken stock and ham based broth for anyone who was too much of a woos to go for the proper one.
Fucshia Dunlop’s Spicy Hotpot Broth Recipe
40 g black fermented beans, soaked in water to get rid of some of the salt and then mashed to a smooth paste with one tablespoon of the
90 ml Shaoxing wine you’ll need.
40 g piece of unpeeled ginger cut in thick coins
50 g dried chilies (the medium length ones from the Asian grocery, not Indian or Thai or Mexican), snipped in half and the seeds discarded
150 ml peanut oil
200 g beef dripping. I did warn you.
100 g Sichuanese chilli bean paste (Check labels; the best ones say something like “Broad Bean Chilli Sauce” and have an ingredients list like “broad bean, chilli, flour, salt”.)
3 litres good beef stock
15 g rock sugar (yes, Ann you can probably substitute)
100 ml fermented glutinous rice wine (optional)
5 g whole Sichuan pepper (not the crap from the Asian grocer; I’ve been happy with the store brand kind from The Essential Ingredient)
Heat two generous tablespoons of peanut oil in a wok over medium heat, but stop before it’s smoking. Stir fry chillies until they smell beautiful, but be careful not to burn them. Remove them and set aside, spoon off the oil into another container and set it aside too.
Heat the dripping and the rest of the peanut oil in the (cleaned) wok over a gentle flame. When it’s all melted, turn it up. When the oil’s starting to smoke add the chilli bean paste and stir fry until the oil’s red and delicious. Again, do not burn. Add the mashed black beans and ginger and stir fry until fragrant. Pour in about 1.5 litres of stock and bring it to the boil.
When at the boil, add the rest of the Shaoxing wine (or shouting! wine, as Grocer calls it), rock sugar, fermented rice wine and salt to taste. Add the chillies and Sichuan pepper and simmer for 15 – 20 minutes. Ponder the lot of the oil you reserved at the beginning of all this malarkey, as it is never mentioned again in the original recipe. Leave it forlornly on the bench.
You can dip many things in a hotpot, but you’re aiming for a feeling of variety and abundance. The Chinese way is to pile up little plates high with individual ingredients. The full list:
smoked hard tofu
some kind of Vietnamese tofu that was creamy on the inside and had a nice fried edge
tiny bundles of yam noodles (check the fridge at your Asian grocery)
wind dried pork sausage (in packets at the Asian grocery)
Chinese bacon – see below
very thinly sliced raw beef (check freezer at Asian grocery)
sliced bamboo shoot
small whole brown mushrooms
fresh white fungus (sheesh, this was good, but it’s a texture buzz, not a flavour one)
little bundles of enoki mushrooms
water spinach in little lengths (kang kong)
fresh mustard greens (the bright green, chunky stemmed kind, not the purple leafy kind)
slices of fennel (not quite traditional, but divine)
slices of hairy melon
baby turnips (like these ones)
A proper Sichuanese spread would have included a variety of offal. Dunlop writes in her memoir “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan pepper” of ordering for her parents when they visited her in China and realising that she had really crossed that “textural divide” that is the last frontier in becoming a true connoisseur of Chinese food. What sparked the realisation was the parents’ faces as they stoically chomped down on their goose intestine.
Here’s some Chinese “bacon”, lup yook, steamed and then sliced very thinly. The one on the left is the one we ate with hotpot – a fresh piece, rather than the vacuum packed kind that is more widely available. The only place I’ve found the fresh gear in Canberra is at Capital Asian Groceries in Purdue St, Belconnen (next to the Regal Restaurant). The texture is far superior, however the vacuum packed kind is fine. And takes a much prettier picture, don’t you think?
You’ll need a little cooking ring for the centre of the table; these butane fuelled ones cost about $20 from a hardware store or Asian grocer. Everyone needs their own little bowl and a little dish. I got some cheap little stemmed wire baskets for catching the morsels, but you could use chopsticks or whatever else is to hand. Keep a jug of the remaining 1.5 litres of stock to hand and use it top it up the wok or pot you’re using as the broth bubbles away. Wait until it boils again before continuing to dip and eat. Only a goon would eat the chillies or Sichuan pepper.
You can see a little white tray behind the wok in the picture on the right; it had sesame and peanut oils, lots of finely chopped garlic, salt and (my own
addiction addition) Chinese roasted sesame paste. Each person mixes their own dipping sauce in their little dish as they go. Beer or sturdy white wines that aren’t too fruity work well.
Hotpot is a great social kind of eating, very relaxed and friendly. The broth smells divine, and the piles of tiny dishes piled high with intriguing things look wonderful However it does involve using every dish in the house. And it’s thirsty eating. Be prepared.