In the late 1940s, Chinese hosts in Beijing took great delight in telling foreign guests about the origins of the famed Mongolian hot pot dinner, the fondue-style dish of the Far East. The dish originated, said the hosts, when the famous Mongol Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde were roaming the northern plains in the 13th century. Because they traveled fast at night by horseback, they never paused to pitch tents and they never lit campfires for cooking.
Instead, the tale went on, to satisfy their hunger, the soldiers placed slices of fresh sheep meat, mutton, between their saddle and their horse. After miles of travel, the heat and sweat of the horses both cooked and flavored the raw mutton. Of course, says old China hand Dick McCarthy, who lives in Silver Spring with his wife, Helene Sze McCarthy, that's just an apocryphal tale.
Tracking down just how the famous northern Chinese meal actually did originate is up to the food historians, but most do attribute its creation to the Mongols. For example, one set of mainland Chinese writers in a 1980s volume on Chinese food describe the hot pot as a dish "prepared by the nomadic peoples of Northern China" that had, by the 18th century, become a favorite in the Qing Dynasty court. They even describe a banquet at which at least 1,500 hot pots were used simultaneously. (Chinese food authority Kenneth Lo would disagree, since he writes in his "Encyclopedia of Chinese Cooking" (Galahad Books, 1992) that the dish "Peking Mongolian" was first enjoyed in Beijing in 1855 during the reign of the Manchurian Emperor Shan-feng.)
The Mongolian hot pot of today certainly does not resemble a platter of horse-cooked meat. Instead, a traditional -- and authentic -- hot pot meal consists simply of thinly sliced lamb, vegetables and noodles that cook at the table in a broth, or sometimes even in plain water. Added touches include a savory dipping sauce to flavor the cooked meat and oval shao-bing, sesame buns, that are filled with the cooked meat. Immensely practical, the meal includes its own soup -- the rich cooking broth, which the Chinese enjoy as a filling and warming last course. This is a perfect winter meal, say the McCarthys, and a popular dish for Chinese New Year.
What makes this meal so special is the authentic tiered brass or copper cooking vessel, probably of Mongolian design, with a base and grate for holding hot charcoal (not for cooking indoors, of course); a metal basin, or moat, that sits above the heat and holds the cooking broth; and at the top tier, a squat tapered chimney that fits through the moat and conducts the heat up through the broth.
A simple cooking device that maintains a relatively high temperature, the hot pot (also called a "fire pot" or a "fire bowl") is large enough for a crowd to gather around at the table, allowing people to cook and keep warm at the same time. Of course, after diners have drunk numerous beers or shots of 100-plus-proof bai-ga'r ("white lightning"; millet wine, a brew often served with Mongolian hot pot, says McCarthy) and swallowed several bowls of steaming rich broth, they may be wringing wet. The bai-ga'r -- which, McCarthy notes, tastes like "old tennis shoes -- is so potent that American GIs during World War II used it for lighter fluid.
Changing times and traditions have helped shape the meal's new look. For even in food-mad Hong Kong, with all its traditional restaurants, patrons are likely to eat a Mongolian hot pot meal that offers much more than sliced lamb. Options include such variations as very thinly sliced beef or chicken; pig's liver or kidney; scallops; fish; clams; prawns; oysters; and squid. And the hot pot's migration southward has brought in other influences, other cooking ingredients. For example, the Southern Chinese, or Cantonese, enjoy a predominantly seafood hot pot dish. And in Malaysia and Singapore, where the hot pot meal is known as "steamboat," almost anything goes, from beef and pork to quail eggs, crab legs, fish heads, okra, abalone and sea cucumber. Perhaps it is this kind of lavish selection that inspired Kenneth Lo to call the steamboat "an illegitimate dish of ill-defined origins."
Yet a hot pot meal that strikes the middle ground -- sliced beef with several kinds of vegetables and a variety of noodles -- can inspire glorious memories.
The McCarthys often fire up their brass Mongolian pot for a winter feast. Set with chopsticks and napkins for 10, the table bears platters of paper-thin beef; small bowls of minced ginger and snipped coriander (cilantro) leaves; baskets stacked with the traditional shao-bing buns; plates with trimmed Chinese cabbage, oyster mushrooms, crown daisy leaves and spinach leaves; serving dishes overflowing with rice-stick noodles, sliced rice cakes and Chinese wheat noodles; and ramekins for Helene McCarthy's pungent dipping sauce. And at either end of the table, the fiery pots glow with hot coals.
In the kitchen, as Helene McCarthy readies the dinner's final stages, she explains that her real role is not cook but "prep" person. With her list in hand, she shops early in the week, so she can prepare all the components long before dinnertime. This means rinsing and trimming the vegetables, she says, holding up a head of spinach she found at an Asian market and is about to arrange on a platter. "Just pull off the roots from the spinach," she says, "but leave on the pink end of the stalk. The last Empress of China always ate that because it is so sweet." But she starts her broth just before dinner because it doesn't require lengthy cooking. Its gentle taste, based on sliced oyster mushrooms, cubes of tofu and tiny meatballs of ground beef or pork, stands up well to everything that cooks in it later. And to save time, McCarthy does not bake her own shao-bing buns, but buys them from a local Chinese restaurant.
Although many hosts let guests mix their own dipping sauce from about a dozen ingredients, Helene McCarthy premixes hers and serves it from large bowls at the table. As it is, no one could really duplicate her sublime mixture, which is as subtle as sesame paste and plum sauce, and as heady as minced garlic and chili oil. Some of us end up spooning this straight into our soup.
As she gestures us to the table, McCarthy explains a few rules of the meal: Cook the meat first, she says. She points out the chopsticks but has also supplied us with small wire-mesh baskets: "Too many Westerners lose their food in the broth if they use chopsticks," she says. To keep the meat from toughening, dunk it for only a few seconds; it cooks quickly, especially as it is truly paper-thin. She then explains how to push the meat down into the hollow of the sesame buns; dunking the filled buns into her sauce may not be part of tradition, but it's a wonderful idea. Stir some of the coriander/ginger mixture and the scallions into the dipping sauce for more flavor, she says, adding that the ginger gives the mixture a certain liveliness. Feel free to scoop out and eat the broth ingredients -- tofu cubes, mushrooms and meatballs -- at any time. Cook the vegetables and noodles after the meat, or during the meal, if you prefer. But save some to eat with the final-course soup. And help yourself, she concludes, there's plenty to eat.
Considering the amount of food facing us, and the heat of the cook pots, the McCarthys fortunately did not tempt us with bai-ga'r. HELENE SZE McCARTHY'S MONGOLIAN HOT POT MEAL (10 servings)
The McCarthys emphasize there are no hard-and-fast rules governing the contents of the meal. Improvise, they say, and use anything you want, including peeled shrimp and squid. And there is no authoritative recipe for how you make up the dipping sauce. Once again, improvise. They also suggest using pita bread cut into 2-inch squares as an alternative for the shao-bing buns.
As for the special pot, you may find the tiered cooking vessel in area stores selling Asian foods and food products. But these will probably be of aluminum. You can use a heatproof casserole or a large chafing dish or fondue pot, provided that you have a good heat source, such as a gas-lit tabletop burner; an electric wok would also work fine. To save your tabletop, and possibly prevent a fire, use a well-insulated pad under the heat source. And, Mongolian tradition aside, note that charcoal manufacturers warn that charcoal should not be used indoors.
The following suggestions for a 10-person dinner should send you on your way to your own hot pot meal. FOR THE MAIN DISH:
5 pounds thinly sliced boneless leg of lamb or beef roast or flank steak
16 ounces dried rice-stick noodles
1 pound fresh Chinese wheat noodles
1 pound New Year's cakes* FOR THE VEGETABLES:
1/2 pound Chinese cabbage, or napa, leaves rinsed and separated
2 bunches spinach, well rinsed and separated
2 pounds crown daisy leaves, rinsed**
1 pound oyster mushrooms, rinsed and sliced FOR OPTIONAL SIDE DISHES:
Salted pickled cucumbers**
Pickled Chinese cabbage leaves***
1 bunch scallions, rinsed, trimmed and sliced, including green ends
3-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
1 cup chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves FOR THE COOKING BROTH:
1/2 pound beef or pork, chopped and formed into little meatballs
1/2 pound oyster mushrooms
1 to 1 1/2 pounds tofu, cut into cubes TO SERVE:
20 or more shao-bing buns
Dipping Sauce (see recipe that follows) FOR MEAT AND VEGETABLES: Partially freeze the meat before slicing with a professional meat-slicing machine, or ask your butcher to slice it paper-thin. A Korean or Japanese butcher can slice it "sukiyaki" style.
Up to an hour before, soak the rice-stick noodles in hot water to make them pliable, and let them drain thoroughly before placing them in a serving bowl. You should also plunge the fresh wheat noodles into boiling water for about 30 seconds to soften them.
Rinse and pat dry all the vegetables and keep chilled until ready for use.
Have the New Year's rice cakes and optional side dishes at the ready. FOR THE BROTH: Fill a large saucepan with 1 to 1 1/2 gallons water. The saucepan should have handles because you will carry the broth to the table in it. You will need to replenish your hot pot with more broth at least once during the meal.
Bring water to a boil. Add meatballs, mushrooms and tofu to the pot and reduce heat to a simmer. Allow mixture to simmer gently for about 10 minutes. TO SERVE: Set each place with a plate, a small soup bowl, chopsticks, a small wire-mesh basket and a soup spoon.
Reheat the broth. When it is boiling, pour it into the serving/cooking utensil at the table (whatever kind of "hot pot" you have come up with), making sure that its heat source -- hot coals or an electric or gas burner -- is set to go; the broth must be kept at a gentle boil throughout the meal so the meat and vegetables will cook through quickly.
Arrange the meat, pre-soaked noodles, New Year's cakes, vegetables and buns in separate serving bowls or platters. Put the components for the various side dishes in individual serving bowls on the table. Scoop the dipping sauce into individual ramekins and set one at each place. Instruct guests to quickly cook their own rice-stick and wheat noodles, rice cakes, meats and vegetables by dipping them in the broth. Pass the side dishes around. Have a large soup ladle ready for serving guests the broth at the end of the meal. * NOTE: These fresh or frozen rice cakes, called nyan-gao, which means "each year climb higher," are popular at the Chinese New Year. They are available whole as long, opaque-white tubes, but they are also available sliced diagonally into oval disks. You can find them at almost any Asian grocery store. ** NOTE: Both of these ingredients are available at Chinese grocery stores. *** NOTE: A milder version of the Korean kim chee (which you may use instead), this is easy to make at home: Chop up several leaves of Chinese cabbage and sprinkle them with salt. After three hours, squeeze out the liquid the salt has drawn out of the leaves. Then sprinkle the leaves with 2 teaspoons vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, hot chilies to taste and sesame oil to taste. HELENE SZE McCARTHY'S DIPPING SAUCE (10 servings)
You may use any assortment of ingredients to make your sauce, but it should at least be based on soy sauce and sesame oil. If you want a fiery concoction, add some Oriental chili paste. Otherwise, this makes a superlative dip.
5 tablespoons Chinese barbecue sauce (preferably Bull Head brand from South Taiwan)
5 tablespoons sesame oil
5 tablespoons rice wine
3 tablespoons white vinegar
5 tablespoons soy sauce
10 tablespoons Golden Mountain brand plum sauce
5 pieces fermented bean curd (this product comes in a jar)
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
5 tablespoons sesame seed paste (Lan Chai brand)
5 tablespoons sugar
Put the barbecue sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, vinegar, soy sauce, plum sauce, bean curd, garlic and sesame seed paste into the work bowl of a food processor or blender. Process for about 30 seconds, then add the sugar and 1 1/2 cups water. Process until very smooth.
Per serving: 157 calories, 2 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 805 mg sodium Alexandra Greeley is author of "Asian Grills" (Doubleday, 1993). Going Out for the Hot Pot
Instead of fixing this festive meal at home, you may prefer to try Mongolian hot pot out at one of the area restaurants that serve a version of it. They include the following:
CHINA CHEF, 11323 Georgia Ave., Wheaton; 301-949-8170.
Here it's just called "hot pot," and the meal includes seafood and meat.
MR. YUNG'S, 740 6th St. NW; 202-628-1098.
Mr. Yung's specializes in the Cantonese-style hot pot, featuring primarily seafood.
NORTH CHINA RESTAURANT, 7814 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda; 301-656-7922.
Mongolian hot pot is available with 24 hours' notice.
TONY CHENG'S MONGOLIAN RESTAURANT and TONY CHENG'S SEAFOOD RESTAURANT, 619 H St. NW; 202-842-8669.
The dish is available at different prices both upstairs and downstairs at this Chinatown restaurant.
VIET THANG (RITZ RESTAURANT), 6793 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-532-1333.
Although this is a Vietnamese restaurant, it serves a Mongolian hot pot-style dish called Ta Tin Lu, with seafood, vegetables and noodles.
-- Alexandra Greeley