In the winter season, when chilly temperatures and frigid winds prevail over the land, people like to eat food that instantly warms their bodies and lifts their spirits. For that, the hot pot is a delicious and hearty choice. Families or groups of friends sit around a table and eat from a steaming pot in the middle, cooking and drinking and chatting. Eating hot pot is not a passive activity: diners must select morsels of prepared raw food from plates scattered around the table, place them in the pot, wait for them to cook, fish them out of the soup, dip them in the preferred sauce, and then eat them hot, fresh, and tender. They can also ladle up the broth from the pot and drink it.
While the cooking is in progress there's some waiting, so the diners may sip a little hard liquor. A togetherness ensues, which soothes their hearts. Weilu--to 'circle' a hot pot--has a deep and profound meaning to the Chinese, who are gregarious and strongly emphasize family and clan. It is cozy, yet informal. It's not a banquet, yet it can take as much time as one. It uses a single pot, yet is varied in ingredients, sauces, and cooking styles.
The hot pot (huokuo) has a long history in China. It originated in the north, where people have to fend off the chill early in the year. It spread to the south during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-906). Later, northern nomads who settled in China enhanced the pot with beef and mutton, and southerners did the same with seafood. In the Ching dynasty, the hot pot became popular throughout the whole area of China.
The pot itself is usually ceramic or metal. In the past,
charcoal was the fuel of choice. Nowadays people use mostly gas or electricity
for this purpose; only the most nostalgic use charcoal. Alcohol is also used
occasionally. Some of the pots are equipped with a chimney in the middle along
with a valve for controlling the size of the flame.
The soup stock is prepared well beforehand and is made by boiling beef, pork, or chicken bones. Meat, seafood, vegetables, tofu, and bean noodles are the most popular ingredients. Freshness commands. Pork, beef, and chicken are often presented side by side; mutton is less frequently used. Meat should not be cooked too long; otherwise it will lose its tenderness. It's best for the meat to be cut as thin as paper, and that's why a sizable piece of meat often shrinks to a small bite after being boiled.
Seafood usually includes shrimp, crab, oysters, clams, squid, cuttlefish, and fish fillet. To make sure the morsels do not drift away or sink to the bottom or hide somewhere, a strainer in which each diner can hold onto his or her delicacies is recommended. Meat, seafood, and egg come in ball or ravioli-like form.
Popularly used vegetables are cabbage, spinach, turnip, green onions, celery, and lettuce. Lettuce is a special favorite among diners for its tender, crispy, and sweet nature. People use a variety that does not have a head and whose leaves are dark green, resembling those of chrysanthemums. Fresh vegetables should be boiled only lightly. Mushrooms of various kinds, dried or fresh, are widely used, as are dried lily flowers. Bean curd and bean noodles serve as more than just fillers. They do not have much taste themselves, but they absorb the richness of the other ingredients. Bean noodles are usually cooked later to help finish up the soup. Some people put plain rice into the last of the soup to make a porridge. Consistent with Chinese culinary thrift, nothing is wasted.
sauces are also pre-prepared. Some are personal concoctions; while most consist
of soy sauce, vinegar, and hot pepper, some people like to beat a fresh egg, or
just the white of it, into the sauce. Like other Chinese cuisine, various kinds
of hot pot from the mainland have congregated in Taiwan since the arrival of
mainlanders in 1949. The Taiwanese have also developed their own styles and have
even imported foreign varieties. In Taiwan today, Korean, Japanese, Thai, and
Swiss hot pots exist alongside Chinese ones.