THERE'S QUITE a contrast when Americans and Chinese share a fire pot. The idea of cooking your own food in a boiling broth and dipping it in a sauce of you own making may not seem too unusual to Americans who have eaten Swiss fondue, but the fire pot in which the cooking is done, a brass vessel with a chimney-like funnel in the center, is an object most of us have never seen.
Most Chinese, on the other hand, have eaten some version of fire pot, no matter where they were born. It is particularly popular during the Spring Festival, what we here call Chinese New Year.
In other words, the Chinese know what they are doing; most of us don't. They choose the condiments and they never just stand around the fire pot, idly chatting. They are there to dip, cook and eat. Conversation takes place only while the food is cooking in the bubbling broth of the fire pot.
Americans, on the other hand, have to discuss each strange condiment. Then they have to discuss how long the meat or vegetables ought to be cooked.
This may explain why the Chinese eat twice the amount of meat Americans eat at a fire pot dinner.
"You'll see," said Aline Berman, who had invited some Chinese diplomats and reporters to a fire pot dinner at her restaurant, Court of the Mandarins. a"The Chinese eat four times as fast as the Americans. With Americans it's a lot of noise. With the Chinese it's all business."
The fire pot is the Chinese version of a chafing dish. The funnel goes down through the center of the pot, which hold the simmering broth.
Red-hot charcoal is inserted through the funnel and keeps the broth bubbling. (Lacking a fire pot, a chafing dish, electric deep fat fryer, even an earthenware casserole kept hot on a hot plate, can be substituted.)
Diners either stand around the table on which the fire pot has been placed, or they are seated at a table with the fire pot in the middle.
Wang Hunbao, protocol officer at the People's Republic of China Embassy, said that families who have their own fire pots often use them in daily life "just to cook ordinary things like been curd, cellophane noodles and vegetables. It keeps the room warm, too," she said.
Fire pot is known by various names throughout China. In Mandarin dialect it is called huo kuo; in Cantonese ta pin lou, which, loosely translated, means "action on the side of the stove." The ingredients for the meal differ according to the region. In the north it's beef, lamb, liver and sometimes pork. In the south it is chicken, fish and seafood. All kinds of green vegetables can be included. Aline Berman's fire pot had spinach, sauerkraut and cabbage, along with cellophane noodles and tofu.
The northern version, the one most popular in the U.S., had diners cooking their own food; the southern version has chicken, fish and seafood brought to the table bubbling in the fire pot. Wang Hungbao described it as Instant Fire Pot.
First the meats are cooked and eaten. They are followed by the vegetables and noodles; some of those are left in the broth for the finale.
While the broth has a few ingredients to season it when it is put in the fire pot, most of the flavor comes from the foods that have been cooked in it. By the end of the meal it has become rich, fragrant and thick. It is served in the same bowls in which each person has mixed sauce ingredients to individual taste for dipping the cooked meats and vegetables.
A sauce can be any combination of a number of condiments. Berman had 11, including one, sha cha sauce, for which she and Wang Hungbao, who ordinarily is never stumped, said there is no translation. Eventually they came up with one -- pickled winter greens -- but said it wasn't particularly satisfactory. Almost everyone at the dinner took a little of each condiment, some using less of the hot pepper oil than others, depending on their predilection for spicy food.
There was a lot of kidding between the two tables over which one the consumption was greater. As Berman predicted, the guests put away a lot of meat, seven pounds among 13 guests. (And that was after an appetizer of chicken roasted in the manner of a duck.) The broth was served with fried sesame buns.
A dessert of toasted, glazed sesame walnuts and Eight Precious Pudding followed. Eight Precious Pudding, made with sweet, sticky rice, is not a favorite among Americans, according to Berman. "Most Americans don't like it because it sticks right here," Berman said, pointing to the "heartburn area."
Some Chinese don't like it either. Wang Hungbao said it is mostly preferred in Shanghai, where they like very sweet things.
For Americans who want to recreate Berman's dinner, and want to lispense with the pudding, glazed walnuts walnuts, perhaps with a lemon sherbert or ice, would be an excellent alternative.
Whether or not you use a fire pot or any of the alternative vessels suggested, you will visist a Chinese grocery store for many of the sauce ingredients.
For each guest you will need a dinner plate, soup bowl, spoon, pair of chopsticks or a long-handled wooden fork (those used for fondue are fine). If sauerkraut is served, it is usually cooked in a small wire mesh strainer, like a small tea strainer.
While there is considerable advance preparation -- much slicing and cutting -- for this meal, there is almost no last-minute work since the diners do their own cooking. A perfect meal if you want to be a guest at your own party. Aline BERMAN'S FIRE POT (8 servings) 1 pound tofu 4 pounds combination of flank steak, boned leg of lamb and calve's liver 1/2 pound cut-up bacon (optional) 1 head Chinese cabbage 2 ounces cellophane noodles 4 dozen large spinach leaves 1 pound sauerkraut Broth 5 quarts boiling water 2 cloves garlic, sliced 2 Chinese dried black mushrooms 2 scallions, sliced diagonally 2 tablespoons dry sherry
Drain the tofu; slice in half. Then slice each half into 108- to 1/4-inch-thick slices. Freeze overnight. In order to slice the meat very, very thinly, it is best to freeze it first for about 2 hours. Then slice the beef diagonally, against the grain. Remove all fat from lamb and slice against the grain. Devein and slice the liver. Arrange each meat, including the bacon, carefully on seperate plate. Remove the bottom, white portion from the cabbage. Wash the top, green leaves, and separate leaves. Place symmetrically in shallow bowl. Pour hot water over cellophane noodles and soak for 15 minutes. Drain and place in bowl. Wash and drain spinach leaves and arrange in bowl. Drain sauerkraut and place in bowl. Place frozen tofu in bowl. Arrange these ingredients around the fire pot.
For the broth, bring 5 quarts of water to boil with garlic, mushrooms, scallions and sherry.
Heat coals in fireplace or in barbecue grill. When coals are red hot, transfer to fire pot, if using one. Add boiling stock to fill the fire pot. If using other vessel, heat and keep hot so that the broth never stops boiling. As the broth is used up, keep adding boiling broth to vessel.
After the diners make their own sauces, they dip pieces of meat, then vegetables, noodles and tofu in the boiling broth, cooking them to desired degree of doneness. The cooked foods are dipped in the sauce. At the end of the meal the broth remaining in the fire pot is ladled into the individual soup bowl and eaten. FIRE POT SAUCE (8 servings) Sesame oil Sesame seed paste, mixed with equal amount of water. Essence of fish Hot pepper oil Red wine vinegar Soy sauce Red bean cake Chopped coriander Chopped garlic Thinly sliced scallion sha cha sauce (pickled winter greens)
Allow 1/4 to 1/2 cup of each condiment except for the soy sauce. You will need double that amount or more of the soy sauce. Mix the sesame seed paste with an equal amount of water. Place each condiment in a separate small bowl around the fire pot. Each diner takes as much of each condiment as desired, places it in the soup bowl and mixes it up to make the sauce for the cooked foods.