The Taste With Vir: What you need to know about Sichuan’s hot pot and Swiss fondue
In this week’s column of The Taste With Vir, Vir Sanghvi speaks about one of Sichuan’s signature dishes, the hot pot, how it’s eaten in Sichuan, contributes to its popularity, and how it’s similar to a Swiss fondue.Updated: Jul 06, 2019 16:11 IST
I have been writing about China and about the Sichuan region in particular over the last week. It is interesting that so many of those who have responded to the articles have made the same point: why did you not mention the famous Sichuan hot pot?
And they are right. I should have mentioned it. The hot pot is one of Sichuan’s signature dishes. I was told that most people in Cheng Du eat hot pot at least twice a week, usually at a restaurant or a dhaba.
A hot pot is pretty much what it sounds like. They put a large pot full of boiling stock in front of you and you place various ingredients in the hot broth till they are cooked to your liking and then take them out and --- if you want --- dip them in hot sauces.
The problem with the hot pot --- from an Indian or non-Chinese perspective ---- is the meat that goes into it. The Chinese regard texture as a taste by itself and also believe that non-Chinese are foolishly wasteful because we only eat the polite parts of each animal or bird. The Chinese, on the other hand, not only eat everything that moves but they also eat every last bit of it.
This is true of all of China. In Shanghai, they will tell you that old joke.
Q: How do we know that Adam and Eve were not Chinese?
A: Because they would have thrown away the apple and eaten the snake.
Most people who tell you this joke are Chinese themselves and it is a measure of how comfortable they are with their propensity to eat everything that they laugh about it.
In Cheng Du and Sichuan in general, they love what we would call offal. They are happy eating stomachs, hearts, intestines (prized for their texture), tripe, etc. So, as far as they are concerned, a hot pot is the perfect medium for cooking all the bits of the animal that may seem nasty to more squeamish people. In fact, they are delighted to get a bit of intestine when they dip into a hot pot because they love its chewy feel.
Of course the Chinese realise that not everyone loves eating the boiled organs of dead animals so there are places in Cheng Du which will now allow you to choose what you want to put into your hot pot (some even have sushi-style conveyer belts with little plates full of ingredients) but because Sichuan is not really an English-speaking region it can be hard to decipher what they say is being thrown into the pot.
The Chinese hot pot has a long and illustrious history dating back many centuries. This is not necessarily true of other Eastern variations on the hot pot principle. Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu, the two most famous communal pot Japanese dishes in the world are of more recent origin. For a start, both use sliced beef which is not part of any ancient tradition. Most Japanese beef recipes and restaurants date no further back than the late 19th century or even the early 20th century. (Remember that when some Wagyu beef snob tells you that it is an ancient, traditional way of rearing fine breeds of cattle.)
In Sukiyaki, the beef is more important. There are two basic styles. In one, the meat is seared and then the seasonings and sauces are added. In another the liquid comes first and the beef goes in later. Both are ceremonial styles of cuisine and at expensive restaurants, a lady server will usually do the hard work of cooking and then give you the beef to dip into raw egg (yes, really) before you eat.
There was a time (pre-sushi boom) when Sukiyaki was the most famous Japanese dish in the world, served at expensive Japanese restaurants in the West. Its fame was sealed by a global hit song Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto. It originally had a silly Japanese title (translated as “I look up when I walk”) which the American record label decided to change. The label bosses chose Sukiyaki (which has nothing to do with the lyrics) because Americans were more familiar with the word. When the song became a global hit (mysteriously; it is not a very good song!) the name Sukiyaki became a generic name for Japanese products.
Shabu Shabu, often confused with Sukiyaki, has much more in common with the Sichuan hot pot because ingredients (usually thinly sliced cuts of beef that are not good enough for Sukiyaki) are put into a boiling broth. Because of the popularity of the name Sukiyaki, Shabu Shabu is often called Sukiyaki in other parts of the world.
Nowhere is the confusion more acute than in Thailand. There are thousands of restaurants offering what the Thais call ‘Suki’. Despite the name, this has nothing to do with Sukiyaki. It has more to do with the Chinese hot pot.
There are controversies surrounding its origin but it is now generally accepted that Suki was created as a variation on the hot pot that was a favourite of Thailand’s wealthy Chinese community. An enterprising restaurateur sensed the potential in the market and opened a place with a gas burner on each table. The waiter would heat stock, guests would put in various ingredients and then, as each ingredient was cooked, they would take it out and dip in a Thai-style spicy sauce.
There are two big chains in Thailand that specialise in Suki. One is called Coca, which claims to have invented it and the other is MK Restaurants. (You can’t drive around Bangkok without seeing branches of both chains.)
Why did they call it Suki when it was clearly Chinese (and not Japanese) in origin? One theory is that they too were influenced by the global popularity of the Sukiyaki song. Except that the song was a global hit in the 1960s and the first Suki restaurant opened in the late 1950s. So I am still not sure about that one.
But if you are craving a Chinese hot pot, you may be better off with the Thai Suki where the ingredients are Indian-friendly, the cost is low (compared to the Japanese hot pot dishes) and there is lots of spice.
Funnily enough, the hot pot most Indians are familiar with is not Eastern in origin. We like the Swiss fondue which is essentially a cheese hot pot. Vegetarians love it and we swallow all the nonsense about it being the national dish of Switzerland.
Fondue is Swiss but it was hardly a staple. It came from the French-speaking regions of Switzerland and became a way of blending gruyere cheese and white wine over a flame at the table. You took a piece of bread, dipped it into the fondue and believed you were partaking of a gourmet delicacy.
In fact the dish didn’t really work or get made much till the early 20th century when they started adding cornflour to stablise the cheese mixture and even then, few Swiss people ate it. In the 1930s, the Swiss Cheese Union seized on it as a way of promoting Swiss cheese (which like the country it comes from is so neutral that it can be boring).
In the 1950s, a famous Swiss restaurateur called Konrad Egli popularised it at his New York restaurant. And by the 1960s, fondue parties had become a symbol of sophistication in suburban middle class America. Now, rich Indians (who are mostly vegetarian) regard it as a special treat when they go to Switzerland.
Konrad Egli also gets the credit for popularising Fondue Bourguignonne at his New York restaurant. The dish may well have originated in some Burgundy village but it was never a significant part of the cuisines of that region (many cynics suggest that Egli made the whole thing up). The Burgundy fondue consists of hot oil into which you dunk pieces of meat till they are cooked to your liking. It was a dish favoured by second rate ‘French’ restaurants outside France and is not very popular any longer.
But Egli’s real legacy may be the chocolate fondue which he also popularised. The fondue was created to a brief from Toblerone chocolate which is ironic because fancy, upmarket chocolate brands now use the dish to promote their super expensive products, not realising that a mid-level, airport duty/free brand created it. The principle is simple: you dunk marshmallows or biscuits into molten chocolate.
So yes, I did not write about the Sichuan hot pot and I think you know why. But the hot pots of East Asia, whether in China, Japan and Thailand are far, far better --- in my view at least --- than the fondues created by Swiss restaurateurs and Swiss Tourism.
I guess all hot pots promote a sense of community and fellowship. And they are valuable for that. But very few of them are really ancient or traditional dishes.
Perhaps our distant ancestors did sit around a fire and eat from a communal pot. But no, they weren’t eating Shabu Shabu or fondue.
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