Winter comes hard to many parts of the Orient. The sky turns a murky gray and the air takes on a biting edge. To help combat the chill, the Chinese partake of a variety of familiar cold-weather specialties such as hearty soups and casseroles. However, the most effective antidotes to the raw temperatures are known as hot pots and fire pots.
Fire-pot meals work very much like a fondue. Diners help themselves by dipping paper-thin slices of meat, chicken, seafood, and vegetables into a big pot (slightly resembling a bundt pan with a central chimney) containing bubbling broth. The food, which cooks immediately, is then dipped into a spicy sauce and eaten without delay.
After all the precut foods have been cooked, the broth, which has become rich and fragrant from the dipped ingredients, is also consumed with relish (noodles often being added for a textural contrast). Steamed bread, rice or noodles frequently completes the fire-pot meal.
Hot pots, also known as "sandy pots" because they are traditionally cooked in an earthenware casserole made from a mixture of clay and sand, are hearty casserole dishes and they include a diverse repertory of foods. There are meat and vegetable stews, soupy noodle pots, steamed rice casseroles, and red-cooked meat and vegetables slow-cooked in a soy sauce-based braising mixture.
Although unfamiliar to most Americans, fire pots and hot pots are easy to prepare, relatively inexpensive, perfect for both entertaining and family eating, and can be served in conventional western pots.
A traditional Chinese fire pot of brass, copper or steel is most impressive, with a tall cylindrical body or chimney for the fuel (generally charcoal), and a wide, round, moat-type bowl or pan for holding the broth. Hot pots or sandy pots are earthenware casseroles, fitted with lids that have an airhole. Although made of earthenware, they are durable enough to withstand direct heat.
The same hot pots and fire pots of today have an ancient heritage as wintertime dishes in China.
The casserole (or fu as it is known in Chinese) is one of the oldest types of pots used in China. Keng, a stewlike concoction made of meat and vegetables, has also been a standard offering throughout history, both in restaurants and homes. One of the oldest casserole restaurants, according to Lilah Kan in her book, "Introducing Chinese Casserole Cookery" (Workman Publishing, 1978.), is the Sha Kuo Chu (Home of the Earthen Pot Casserole) in Peking, which was established in the 1700s and boasts a huge, professional earthenware hot pot about four feet long.
The fire pot also dates back to ancient times, but to a slightly later period than that of the hot pot. It is believed that fire pots originated in Mongolia, where lamb and beef were cooked in vessels of boiling water over charcoal braziers. The dish made its way to Peking in the early 1800s. It was refined by Han master chefs and soon became popular throughout the country. Regional chefs, using the fire-pot theme, soon devised their own unique variations.
Florence Lin, one of America's leading authorities on Chinese cooking and author of "Cooking with Fire Pots" (Hawthorne Books, 1979) lived in several different parts of China during her childhood. She fondly remembers huddling around a fire pot each winter and the contents of the pot that varied with the locale. In a telephone interview from her New York home, Lin reminisced about some of the different fire pot variations.
"In northern China, people there traditionally make a Mongolian fire pot, with lamb, bean curd and vegetables cooked in a hearty lamb stock," she said. "Lamb is especially popular in the winter because the Chinese believe that lamb has a warming effect on the body.
"In Sichuan province, located in western China, a spicy fire pot known as peppery tripe fire pot is served in small, informal roadside restaurants. This regional dish consists of small pieces of honeycomb tripe cooked in a pot over a charcoal-burning mud stove," said Lin. "The pot usually stands high on the table so that people stand, rather then sit, on benches. If they get tired, they put their feet up on the bench and lean forward; it is a very casual way of eating.
"Easterners like to eat something called "10 varieties fire pot." It's a beautiful looking dish . . . made with assorted precooked meat rolls, seafood, eggs, vegetables, and some soybean products.
"But the most sophisticated fire pot," said Lin, "is the chrysanthemum fire pot from southern China. It contains meat, poultry, vegetables and lots of seafood. In China, we use the white chrysanthemum flower. The petals provide a refreshing flavor. I don't recommend eating chrysanthemums from florists in this country because they are often sprayed with insecticides. You could use them just to decorate the platters."
While Lin is very fond of the traditional pots, she often creates her own variations, using whatever ingredients happen to be available. If the traditional fire pot is not available, she suggests using an electric skillet, a fondue pot, an electric deep-fryer, or a dutch oven or casserole placed on a hot plate in the center of the table. The most important considerations, whatever the dish, is that the pot be placed so that diners may help themselves, and the broth be kept at a constant boil.
In addition to the more-familiar, tall fire pot, there is a lesser-known classic fire pot shaped like a chafing dish with a round, deep bowl for the broth and a small compartment for the fuel (usually sterno).
Small-handled strainers for dipping and removing the ingredients from the broth usually are sold with the fire pots, which are available at gourmet cookware stores and some Chinese supermarkets.
Hot pots or sandy pots are available in several sizes and shapes. Generally, they are made of earthenware, shaped from a combination of clay and sand, which have been fired at an extraordinarily high temperature so they may withstand direct heat. As they absorb, distribute, and retain heat beautifully, they are superb for braising and stewing.
Traditional sandy pots are available in three sizes: One, shaped like a saucepan with slanting sides and a short handle, generally is used for braising meat, seafoods, bean curd, and vegetables. Another is taller, with a round body and slender neck, and is used for making soups and cooking rice. The third type is shaped like a dutch oven, and is best for casseroles and stews. Unfortunately, the pots tend to be fragile, so they should be handled with care.
Like fire pots, hot-pot meals need not be prepared in the traditional sandy pot. Any heavy, dutch oven or casserole will do. In fact, many Chinese in this country opt for using an enamel-coated, cast-iron casserole and baking the dish in the oven, rather than cooking the dish in an earthenware pot on top of the stove as is traditionally done. The more durable pots are less likely to break.
One of the great advantages of hot pots, apart from their delicious flavor, is that they are often a meal in themselves, particularly with the rice and noodle casseroles. They may be prepared in advance, and their flavor usually improves with age.
The recipes below offer a taste of some of the delectable results of fire pot and hot pot cooking: RED-COOKED CHICKEN WITH CHESTNUTS (6 servings) 2 3-pound chickens 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1/2 pound dried chestnuts 1/2 cup safflower or corn oil FOR THE BRAISING MIXTURE: 1 cup Chinese rice wine 3 tablespoons sesame oil 2 tablespoons sugar 3 cloves garlic, smashed lightly with the flat side of a cleaver 4 slices gingerroot, smashed lightly with the flat side of a cleaver 4 stalks scallion, smashed lightly with the flat side of a cleaver 1 cup soy sauce Coked rice for serving
Remove any fat from the cavity and chicken neck. Using a sharp knife or cleaver, cut the chicken, through the bones, into 2-inch square pieces. Place the pieces in a bowl, add the tablespoon of soy sauce, and toss lightly to coat.
Soak the dried chestnuts in hot water for 3 hours, changing the water several times. Drain thoroughly and scrape away any dark skin in the crevices. Pat dry. Prepare the braising mixture by combining the first six ingredients.
Heat a wok or a deep skillet with a lid and add the safflower or corn oil. Heat to approximately 400 degrees, or until very hot. Drain the chicken pieces, adding the soy sauce to the braising mixture. Place half the chicken pieces, or as many that will fit in the pan, and fry over high heat on both sides until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain, reheat the oil, and fry the remaining chicken pieces. Remove, drain and reheat the oil until hot once again. Add the chestnuts and fry briefly until golden brown. Remove and drain.
In a heavy 3-quart casserole or dutch oven, place the chicken pieces, chestnuts and the braising mixture. Heat until the mixture is boiling and reduce the heat to low. Partially cover and simmer 1 hour, or until the chicken and chestnuts are very tender. Remove and discard the seasonings and serve with rice. LION'S HEAD CASSEROLE (6 servings) 1 small head Chinese or Napa cabbage, weighing about 1 1/2 pounds 2 cloves garlic, smashed lightly with the flat side of a knife FOR THE SOUP BASE: 4 cups chicken broth 2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine 1 teaspoon salt FOR THE MEATBALLS: 1 1/2 pounds ground pork butt or loin end 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon sesame oil 1 tablespoon rice wine 2 tablespoons minced scallions 1 teaspoon minced gingerroot 1 tablespoon cornstarch FOR THE MEAT COATING: 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 tablespoon water 3 tablespoon safflower or corn oil
Remove and reserve the first four whole outer leaves of cabbage. Trim off the stem end, rinse lightly and set the leaves aside. Cut the remaining cabbage into 2-inch squares, remove the stem ends and separate the leafy sections from the harder sections. Combine the chicken broth, rice wine and salt to make the soup base.
In a bowl, combine the ground pork, salt, sesame oil, rice wine, minced scallion, gingerroot and cornstarch. Stir in the mixture, using your hands, in a continuous direction, and shape into 4 meatballs. Combine the cornstarch, soy sauce and water for the meat coating and dip the meatballs into the meat coating. Pour the remaining meat coating into the soup base.
In a heavy 3-quart casserole or dutch oven, add the safflower or corn oil and heat until very hot. Add the meatballs and fry, turning once, over high heat, until golden on all sides. Remove, drain, and remove all but 2 tablespoons of oil from the pan. Reheat and add the garlic and harder cabbage sections. Toss lightly over high heat and add a tablespoon or two of the soup base to moisten. Add the leafier sections, toss briefly, and arrange the meatballs on the cabbage. Pour the soup base on top and cover with the four whole cabbage leaves. Cover the pot and bake for 1 hour in a 350-degree oven. Uncover, skim off any fat, and serve. SEAFOOD NOODLE HOT POT (6 servings) 3 tablespoons safflower or corn oil 1/2 pound flat flour-and-water noodles or linguine 2 cloves garlic, smashed lightly with the flat of a knife 8 cups Chinese or Napa cabbage, cut into 2-inch squares FOR THE SOUP BASE: 6 cups chicken broth 1/4 cup Chinese rice wine 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper 1 1/2 pounds firm-fleshed fish fillets, such as haddock, red snapper or sea bass, skin removed and cut into 2-inch squares 1/2 pound medium-size raw, shelled and deveined shrimp 1/2 pound sea scallops, rinsed and drained FOR THE SEAFOOD MARINADE: 1/4 cup rice wine 1 teaspoon finely minced gingerroot 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon sesame oil
Heat 4 quarts of water with 1 tablespoon of oil until boiling. Add the noodles and cook until barely tender, about 5-7 minutes. Remove and drain. Rinse under cold, running water and drain. Place the noodles in the bottom of a 3-quart casserole or dutch oven. Prepare the soup base by mixing the chicken broth, rice wine, salt and white pepper.
Heat a casserole or a dutch oven and add the remaining oil. Heat until very hot and add the garlic and cabbage sections. Toss briefly over high heat, adding a tablespoon of soup base, and cook until slightly limp. Add the remaining soup base and heat the mixture until boiling. Reduce the heat to low, and cook 30 minutes.
Prepare the seafood marinade by combining the ingredients. Place the fish, shrimp and scallops in three separate bowls and add some of the marinade to each bowl, toss lightly to coat, and let sit while the broth is cooking.
Arrange the seafood separately in the soup pot, over the cabbage and cover. Bake 12-15 minutes in a 375-degree oven, or until the fish flakes when prodded with a fork. Serve immediately. MONGOLIAN BEEF FIRE POT (6 servings) 2 pounds top sirloin of beef, trimmed of any fat or gristle, and cut, across the grain, into paper-thin slices FOR THE MEAT MARINADE: 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon rice wine 1 teaspoon sesame oil FOR THE SOUP BASE: 5 cups chicken broth 3 tablespoons rice wine 1/2 teaspoon salt 4 cups Chinese or Napa cabbage, cut into 2-inch squares 2 3-inch squares bean curd, cut into small dice 2-ounce package bean threads or cellophane noodles, softened in hot water 10 minutes, drained and cut into 3-inch lengths 1/2 pound fresh button mushrooms, rinsed and drained 1/2 pound spinach, trimmed, rinsed and drained FOR THE DIPPING SAUCE: (per person) 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon rice wine 1 teaspoon Chinese black vinegar 1 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon hot chili paste (optional) 1 teaspoon minced scallions 1/2 teaspoon minced gingerroot 1 teaspoon minced garlic
Place the meat slices in a bowl, add the ingredients of the marinade, toss lightly to coat, and arrange the slices on a serving platter on the table.
Mix the chicken broth, rice wine and salt to make a soup base and heat until boiling in a saucepan. Reduce the heat to low and arrange the other ingredients including the cabbage, bean curd, bean threads, mushrooms and spinach, on another serving platter. Place it on the table. Prepare the dipping sauce for the appropriate number of people, place in serving bowls and arrange on the table.
Place the Mongolian Fire pot or electric skillet in the center of the table. Prepare and place red-hot charcoal briquettes in the central chimney of the pot* and turn the skillet on high. Transfer the hot broth to the pot and heat until just boiling. Each diner takes a slice of meat, dips it in the hot stock until it is cooked, then places it in the dipping sauce before eating. The cabbage, bean curd, bean threads, mushrooms and spinach are placed in the pot and allowed to cook until done. They are then scooped out by the diner, dipped in the dipping sauce and eaten. Finally, the broth is also consumed.
For a quick method of heating charcoal, place in a heavy pan lined with foil, preheat broiler, and broil for about 10 minutes, until red-hot. FLORENCE LIN'S CHRYSANTHEMUM FIRE POT (6 servings) 1 large, whole chicken breast, skinned, boned, semifrozen and cut into thin, 2-by-2-inch slices 1 pound sirloin or flank steak, semifrozen and cut into very thin 2-by-2- inch slices 1 pound fresh shrimp, shelled, deveined and split laterally into halves 1/2 pound fillet of sole, scrod or yellow pike, cut into 2-by-2-inch pieces 1 dozen shucked clams on the half shell with juice 1/4 pound calf's or chicken liver, sliced into 2-by-2-inch pieces 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon white pepper 2 teaspoons dry sherry 2 teaspoons peanut or corn oil 2 ounces cellophane noodles, softened in boiling water for 15 minutes 1/2 pound fresh, tender spinach or lettuce, rinsed well and drained 1 large piece fresh bean curd, cut into 2-by-1 1/2-inch slices 1/2 cup coriander leaves and tender stems 1 large chrysanthemum, for decoration 8 cups chicken broth FOR THE SAUCE: 2 eggs 1/2 teaspoon sugar 3 tablespoons light soy sauce 2 tablespoons dry sherry 1 tablespoon oyster sauce 1 tablespoon sesame oil 1 tablespoon minced scallion
On 2 platters or 6 plates, arrange and alternate the cut chicken, beef, shrimp, fish, clams and liver in one overlapping layer. Season with salt, pepper, sherry and oil. Cover the plates with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time. Drain the cellophane noodles and put them, along with the spinach and bean curd, into 2 separate serving bowls. Store the coriander in a plastic bag until serving time, when it will be used to garnish the meat and fish, along with the flower.
To make the sauce, beat the eggs thoroughly, then add the remaining sauce ingredients and mix well. Pour a couple tablespoons of the sauce into individual rice bowls; the sauce will be used as a dip either before or after cooking the meat. If the meat is dipped into the sauce before cooking, the egg coating and seasonings will give the meat a smooth and tender consistency. If the meat is dipped into the sauce after it is cooked, the sauce and seasonings cool the meat.
Pour the chicken stock into either a traditional fire pot or an electric casserole, or a dutch oven, and place on the dining room table. Bring the stock to a boil. The stock must remain at a slow, continuous boil.
Place the rice bowls containing the sauce on the table. Put the meat, fish, and vegetables on the table and allow each person to serve himself, holding chopsticks in one hand and the sauce bowl in the other. Each piece of meat, fish, shrimp, clam and chicken is dipped into the boiling broth and cooked until done. In general, after the meat and seafood are consumed, the vegetables and the remainng ingredients are added to the broth, cooked, and placed in rice bowls. There are no set rules, however, and the ingredients may be eaten in any order desired.
From "Cooking with Firepots" by Florence Lin