A week or two ago I was lucky enough to have the experience to try Asian hot-pot for the very first time. My friend is from Japan and she told me about a restaurant in Chinatown called, Shabu-Zen, that serves Asian hot-pot. Up until that point in my life I had never heard of hot-pot, so I thought it would be adventurous to expand my knowledge of Asian foods and try it out.
When we arrived at the restaurant it was packed with people. Shabu-Zen consisted of one large room with separate tables for groups to eat at as well as a long table that wrapped around the center of the room where people were squished in together much like the setup at a bar.
We waited only a few minutes and were seated at one of the private tables toward the back of the room. Our waitress brought us our menus and one of my friends and I decided to order the chicken meal, while my other friend opted for a vegetarian dish. I wish I had remembered to bring my camera with me that night so I could display pictures of the unique style of eating associated with Asian hot-pot, but I will simply have to do my best with a written description.
Asian hot-pot works something like this. Built into the center of the table there is a heater that the waitress places a bowl of flavored water on top of so the water will heat up and boil. There are many flavors to choose from to add to the water, but my friends and I eventually decided to have a beef flavoring on one side of the pot and an Asian spice with Chile peppers on the other side of the pot (the pot is split into two sections.)
Then the waitress brings out your individualized meal. The chicken dish came with a plate of thinly sliced raw chicken and a plate of raw vegetables, while my friend's vegetarian dish came with a larger plate of vegetables. The vegetables consisted of slices of raw tomatoes, corn, carrots, Asian cabbage, lettuce, and mushrooms as well as other vegetables that I did not even recognize. Each person also has the choice to pick either noodles or rice to come with their meal. And finally, the table also came complete with several toppings for general use such as soy sauce, garlic bits, sliced up Chile pepper, and dry beef flavoring. You then use chopsticks to place the raw ingredients into the boiling water to cook and absorb the water's flavor.
Asian hot-pot requires a little bit of creativity on the part of the individual because you have to determine for yourself which ingredients taste the best together. I tried to make lots of soups by scooping up the water from the pot and placing it in my bowl. I then cooked the noodles, vegetables, and chicken in the pot and added them to my bowl. I used the garlic and soy sauce for extra flavoring. However, the simplicity or complexity of the meal is really up to the person. For example, sometimes I just cooked the vegetables in the Chile flavored water and then ate the vegetables plain and other times I tried to invent a new soup. By the end of the night we were all stuffed and content with our meals.
In the end, the thing that stood out to me most about my first Asian hot-pot experience was its communal nature. Everyone at the same table shares the same pot so you work together to try to remember whose food is whose. The unique style of eating also brought up some interesting cross-cultural conversations between me and my friends. One of my friends is from Japan and has also lived in many other parts of the world, the other is originally from Argentina, and I am from the United States, so we were really able to bond over our eating experience.
If anyone wants to break the ice with some new friends or just enjoy a night out with some old pals, I strongly urge him or her to give Asian hot-pot at Shabu-Zen in Chinatown a try.