Sunday, December 21, 2008

'tis the season for family

The cold weather is the ideal time for people to come together for hotpot dinners. Traditionally, hotpot is eaten during Chinese New Year where family gather around the table and eat for hours on end. Everyone huddles over the pot of boiling broth dipping pieces of meat, seafood, vegetables into the communal pot to cook together.

I was invited to my friend Anh's home for such a joyous occasion. Anh's and her husband's family were having a Christmas celebration and hotpot was the main attraction. Since getting a hotpot dinner together is a bit of a production, I felt really honored to be joining them as a guest.

Anh's family is of Vietnamese heritage so food is always the center of any family get togethers. There was sticky rice with soy chicken, fried chicken marinated with lemongrass, salt and pepper crabs among the yummy offerings on the table. Unlike the hotpots I do in our home, Anh spent the
afternoon cooking up two pots of broth especially for this event: one spicy using a ma la base, while the other, using Chinese medicinal herbs for flavoring. I noticed goji berries floating in the latter pot. Ma la seasoning comes from the Sichuan peppercorn berries which leave a tingling sensation on the tongue. While some people might find this a rather daunting experience, I absolutely love it!

To complete the hotpot meal plates of raw items are placed around the pot so guests can pick and choose what they want and cook it themselves in the seasoned broth. Plump shrimp, snow white pieces of calamari, thinly sliced beef, beef balls, as well as lots and lots of greens cover the entire table. My favorite hotpot vegetable tong ho (chrysanthemum leaves) prettily adorn the tray alongside baby mustard greens and bok choy. There are two types of mushroom: shiitake and button. The choice is endless.

I started off eating the lemongrass chicken Anh had been busy frying up. It was absolutely delicious! The chicken was tender and moist and the marinade had seeped entirely into the meat m
aking it flavorful bite after bite. Then, it was time to dig into the star of the night. Anh had made a dipping sauce out of sa cha sauce (Chinese bbq sauce) and we were to add chilis if we wanted them. I certainly did. I took a slice of beef, dipped it into the ma la broth, swished it for a few seconds and then dipped it into the sa cha sauce and placed it into my mouth. Heavenly! I did this over and over again with different items for almost two hours, finally finishing off with vegetables.

I was glad I sat on my end of the table. We were all in for the long haul so to speak. The other end had given up long ago. I wish I had worn my sweat pants instead of jeans as I had completely stuffed myself silly. As I sat there in a food daze, Anh was up and about making root beer floats for the kids.

We stayed for a little while longer until my little guy looked like he was ready to call it a night. But before leaving, I was graced with two ziploc bagfuls of leftovers to enjoy the next day.

I thanked my wonderful hosts Anh and her husband Hung for their hospitality and felt all warm and fuzzy from the meal and grateful for all the wonderful friends I have made here -- plus, it doesn't hurt that they are all wonderful cooks and as in love with food as I am!

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