Last night, my in-laws introduced me to two varieties of Chinese fondue – a mild Cantonese version and the infamous Sichuan hot pot. I had been curious about hot pot ever since I saw Anthony Bourdain try it on No Reservations: I love spicy food, and figured anything that could reduce a tough guy like Bourdain to flop sweat and tears of pain had to be really, really intense. So I was psyched when I heard I’d get to try it.
Basically, hot pot is a combination of water, oil, and fiery hot peppers into which you dip bits of meat, vegetables, and tofu, fondue-style. The meat’s sliced very thin so it cooks up in a flash. My father-in-law chose ten types of protein-laden goodies ranging from the pedestrian (chicken, pork, lamb) to the somewhat bizarre (at least by wimpy American eating standards): pig livers, duck tongues, and tripe.
But everything tastes good when you cook it in searing-hot pepper broth and finish it with a little sesame oil and soy sauce. My apologies to Guangzhou: after one bite of meat cooked in the hot stuff, I never went back to the Cantonese version. The hot pot was simply too addictive. It made my nose run and my eyes water and all but had me breathing fire, my tongue periodically numbed by the natural Novocaine that is the Sichuan peppercorn, and I could not stop eating. Each bite brought a delicate balance between pleasure and pain—deliciously peppery flavor, bought at the price of having your mouth feel like you’d swallowed fire. But the pain was a good pain, somehow. It forced you to slow down and experience each bite, and that’s a rare experience these days. No one mindlessly gobbles Sichuan hot pot, simply because it’s physically impossible to do so without powerful anesthetic.
As for the “weird” bits, by and large, I liked them. I had had tripe before, at the Grand Asia Buffet in Cary, but of course I preferred the hot version. Tripe has almost no flavor of its own, so it pairs well with sauces or fondue-type deals. It’s basically a conveyance for the flavor of whatever you cook it in. Its texture is somewhere between that of al dente fettuccine and calamari – a bit chewy, with a distinctive “squeakiness” beneath your teeth. Fairly innocuous, really, once you get past the idea of eating cow’s stomach. I’m not ready to chow down on a big bowl of tripe just yet, but the stuff’s certainly growing on me.
Duck tongues were the surprise of the night. In both taste and texture, they resembled the bits of fat and skin and chewy stuff around the joints of a chicken wing. Each contained a long, flat bone that you had to eat around, and, after a few tries, I got the trick to it down pat. Duck tongues, again, don’t have that much flavor of their own, but they’re a good vehicle for sauce – and I bet they’d be tasty fried.
I wasn’t so crazy about the pig livers, which had a strong, metallic taste and a rich, intense texture, but I’d try them again if I got the chance.
We finished off the meal with noodles cooked in the hot pot, which had boiled down to a vivid, thick redness disturbingly reminiscent of magma. The noodles emerged from this primordial ooze redolent of oil, peppers, and the meaty flavor of everything that had gone in the pot before them. They were socko.
Post-hot pot, I felt pleased and a bit giddy to have braved the cauldron of fire—it had been a small adventure to start off the week, the culinary equivalent of the Path to Kal’haya.