HOT & HEARTY

Found throughout Asia, Vietnam has its own delectable selections of hotpots

By Le Diem on December 10,2018 02:29 PM

HOT & HEARTY

When the cold winds of winter arrive, it activates our appetite mode to hotpot

Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you.” The first line of the signature song from the film Titanic was messaged to me by my cousin, who was living in Spain. But what she missed wasn’t me. The “you” was the frog legs in a hotpot we usually had together when she was in Vietnam. During her years abroad, not only frog hotpot but most other kinds, one of our favorite Vietnamese dishes, is what she constantly misses and dreams about, especially in winter.

When the cold winds of winter arrive, it activates our appetite mode to hotpot. One winter evening, she and I were driving near our favorite frog hotpot restaurant and really wanted to have some. But we also thought about just eating at home to save money, as we were both broke. We couldn’t decide. So we let God “decide”, by looking at the last number of the license plate on the next motorbike to pass by. If it was an even number, we would eat frog hotpot; if it was odd, we would go home.

It was odd; we got ready to go home. But... maybe we should try again? Maybe we misread the license plate (we both have bad eyesight)? The next three plates were odd, so we finally decided to go home. We were silent the whole trip. My mind was busy thinking about the delectable smell and taste of frog hotpot. I guessed hers was too, because I could hear her swallowing as her mouth watered.

As we were nearing home, we suddenly looked at each other and said, at the same time, “Let’s go for it.” We laughed all the way back to the restaurant.

So, there we were, sitting at the restaurant, staring at the pot and waiting impatiently for it to come to the boil. When it did, my cousin started her “hotpot ritual”, putting some of the broth in her bowl to taste, before going for some meat. She smiled. “This is true happiness.” She always has that smile whenever she visits Vietnam and sits in front of a hotpot.

According to a lot of scientific research, the metabolism process acts more slowly in winter, so food, especially hot food, helps keep you warm and have more energy. Since early human history, people have gathered by a fire and eaten hot food to keep warm. Hot and tasty food also activates dopamine, known as the “feel-good” hormone, which makes you excited and happy.

The origin of the hotpot is a little vague. Some believe it came from Mongolia, when horsemen rode throughout Asia thousands of years and took few utensils with them. So, they simply upturned their helmets and used them as a pot to cook in and to eat from. The warm, simmering stew featured beef, mutton or horse, and was a rudimentary version of the hotpot.

The Chinese took note, and customized it into a delicious hotpot based on their rich cuisine culture. The hotpot first appeared in China around the 4th century and became popular in the 7th century, as its recipe is mentioned in some old documents.

In olden times, people put a pot of food over a charcoal fire and sat around waiting to eat it. It could have been be a pot of broth in which raw food was placed and then boiled. This mirrors exactly the hotpot we know today.

Influenced by Chinese culture, Vietnamese also customized and created various types of hotpots, making it one of the most popular dishes for many people.

The broth is the most important taste, determining the quality of a hotpot. Each type of hotpot comes with a different broth, which provides a unique taste that is easily recognizable. For example, there is a fatty broth for beef hotpot, a salty flavor for a seafood hotpot, a sweet and sour broth for a frog hotpot, and a strong smelling fish sauce hotpot and an unusual sour broth for Gobiidae fish hotpot; two specialties of the Mekong Delta.

HOT & HEARTY

In recent years, local restaurants have added more styles from other regional countries to their menus, like sweet, sour and spicy Thai hotpot, herbal and cinnamon star Chinese and Hong Kong hotpot, hot and spicy kimchi hotpot from South Korea, and sweet and salty Japanese hotpot, making the hotpot world in Vietnam more mouthwatering.

If the broth plays the role of husband in the hotpot relationship, the ingredients are the wife. While the “husband” builds the house, the “wife” takes care it. Though anything, really, could be put into a hotpot, a good hotpot requires a thoughtful selection.

The meat can be beef, pork ribs, chicken, duck, frog, or seafood, including prawns, squid, fish, and crab. Each hotpot generally has just one type of protein, though mixed hotpots are also common.

Vegetarians can also enjoy a good hotpot, as it doesn’t necessarily need meat, with vegetables, mushrooms, and tofu sufficing. Thanks to being a tropical country, Vietnam has a varied selection of vegetables that are not only healthy but give any hotpot some balance.

The best way to eat a hotpot is to alternate putting meat and vegetables into the simmering broth, which helps the fat and sweetness of the meat spread out and dissolve.

Different from other dishes, which you eat only after it’s all cooked, hotpots require you cook a little, eat a little, cook a little more then eat a little more, with every morsel being hot. It takes a while to get going, but it’s one of the longest-lasting dishes you can find.

We Vietnamese rarely have hotpots by ourselves, as it’s the perfect dish for when family and friends get together. Given the way it’s cooked and eaten, it also means spending more time together than if you were to eat other dishes. Hotpots are always what my cousin and I want when we hang out together, and when she dreams of hotpot I know she also dreams of me.

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