Taiwan and Hotpot
Text: Rick Charette
Taiwan has had a feverish passion for hotpot since the late 1990s. Shabu-shabu restaurants suddenly began sprouting up in major cities, stimulating the craze, then more traditional hotpot migrated from the private home to the restaurant biz. The latter type now dominates. In keeping with the established trend for most all hot and enduring trends in this land, Taipei is hotpot-central.
Hotpot, widely eaten by Chinese speakers since the days when the horse-riding Mongols came riding uninvited into China to sit their khan down on the Chinese imperial throne in the late 13th century, was long seen exclusively as a warming winter treat. But in today’s Taiwan the “addiction to pot” means year-round demand and supply.
Even at the height of summer, when humidex readings are regularly in the 40s Celsius, Taiwan’s gourmands will gather with family and friends for a boisterous round of steamy hotpot, oft accompanied with cooling rounds of Taiwan Beer. Then – to my never-ending amazement and admiration – many will top things off by heading elsewhere for a round of mist-emitting shaved ice, a favorite summer confection. As my mom would say, locals seem to have all “been born with a cast-iron stomach.” Growing up, my own obsession with food caused her to christen me “the walking garbage can” – to me, the loveliest of compliments. Taiwan is my kind of place, good food always at hand, day and night.
Hotpot – The Basics
A metal pot is placed at the center of a dining table and filled with soup stock. In the past the pot sat atop a coal burner; today electric and gas cooking units are standard. A variety of fresh ingredients is added, sometimes all at once, most times spread out, to the continually simmered stock. Generally, these are thinly sliced meat cuts, fresh and processed seafood selections, leafy vegetables, dumplings, mushrooms, and noodles/vermicelli. The cooked items are usually eaten with a dipping sauce.
I must here admit a small, well-intentioned white lie. Hotpot in fact penetrated into China during the Tang Dynasty (618~907 AD) – but was not well established until the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271~1368 AD). The main ingredients in Mongolian hotpot were beef, mutton, and horse. Over the centuries, as the dish spread through China regional variations emerged, notably seafood as an ingredient along China’s southern seaboard.
The many regional variations are well represented in Taipei, as are variations from further afield, notably Japan and Korea. Yet though there are hundreds and hundreds of hotpot restaurants in the greater Taipei area; aficionados now have over 15 years of restaurant sampling under their belt and are constantly on the lookout for novelty, resulting in incessant bubbling and churn in the industry. We here introduce three of the hottest hotpot restaurants in the metro area at the moment, and the novelties that have piqued the palates of foodies.
Hotpot vs Shabu-Shabu: What’s the Diff?
When talking hotpot, it’s important to be able to differentiate between two commonly heard terms, “hotpot” and “shabu-shabu.” Many think the two are entirely different categories. No. The latter is simply one variation of the former. Hotpot is shared by a group of people. For shabu-shabu, each person gets his or her own (much smaller) pot and an individual dish of ingredients. Shabu-shabu is Japanese, the term meaning “swish-swish,” from the sound created when swishing individual ingredients back and forth in the stock, especially meat cuts. In Japan the standard stock is made of kelp, but in Taiwan there are many other options. In Japan, after all ingredients are eaten leftover broth is combined with rice in a bowl, to make soup, and/or noodles are added to the stock. This is not de rigeuer in Taiwan.
Popular Hua Guo hotpot restaurant is located in Neihu District, on Taipei’s northeast side, in an area filled with such large-in-scale neighbors as Costco and Hola wholesale outlets, the two named here in clear view on either side. The culinary novelty on offer at the restaurant is “Western-style set meal hotpot.” More on this a few paragraphs further below. First, however, a description of the airy, comfortable facility’s look and feel.
The restaurant is quite large, with seating for 300~350; seating varies from tables for four to 10~12. It sits on the top (third) floor in one of two buildings that make up the Neihu Flower Market. The ceilings are very high, and there are wall-to-ceiling windows on two sides. These provide unobstructed views of the neighbors spoken of in the paragraph above, a partial view of mountains to the north, and a calming, spirits-friendly view of (on the day of a recent Travel in Taiwan visit) clear blue skies above. Directly in front on the entrance side is an expansive wood-flooring patio, the wide curving stairs that lead up from street level, the glass-walled neighboring Neihu Flower Market building, which is lawn-fronted, and the glass-encased skywalk that connects the two buildings.
The name “Hua Guo” means “flower pot.” “Flower” celebrates the pastel beauties of the restaurant’s flower-market home, and in the décor you’ll see there is much in the way of pastel colors, complemented by the liberal use of flowers, both faux and the real thing. “Pot” is a play on words, referring to the many flowerpots you’ll see on display and to the hotpot used to cook the food you’ll be eating.
The primary décor color is a pronounced, sultry darkish-pastel purple, nicely reflected in the quietly elegant gun-metal and white lighting fixtures, creating an ambience of silky, genteel sophistication. We sat in a large cage; i.e., a large open-front “birdcage” with a large round table inside and slide-in sofa seating. This is one of the touches in a secondary “afternoon tea in a flower garden” theme – the cage evokes the birdcages one might find hung up in an English garden. Smaller, portable open-front birdcages are used as afternoon tea-style serving implements for some ingredients; others are presented atop small faux logs made to look like fallen sections of trees, real and fake flowers “growing” out of them.
Here’s how your set meal works. The price is NT$299 on weekdays, NT$399 on weekends/holidays. First, you get to choose from among four stocks for your entrée, an individual-serving hotpot. The two most popular are the Japanese Hokkaido kombu and signature mala (“numbing spicy”) stocks. The latter is delectable, featuring Chinese medicinal herbs and fresh Sichuan peppercorn. Hua Guo pulls back from making it so palate-numbing that you cannot really taste the cooked hotpot ingredients after a few bites, which is the common experience in many other hot-pot restaurants. The pleasant rich aroma of the herbs and spiciness pervades the dining area.
Next, you choose your meat cuts: snowflake beef, marbled pork cooked with plum and herbs, New Zealand lamb, or chicken). The quality is very high, fat content low; the chewy, fibrous meat readily absorbs the stock, to gratifying effect. A platter of other ingredients – mushrooms, taro, fishballs, tofu, etc. – also automatically comes with the set meal, and you also get access to the buffet bar and its range of fruit juices/pop drinks, fresh fruits, noodles, ice creams, and much else.
Hua Guo (花鍋)
Add: 3F, No. 28, Xinhu 3rd Rd., Neihu Dist., Taipei City (台北市內湖區新湖三路28號3樓)
Tel: (02) 8791-0015
This attractively decked-out restaurant is a two-minute walk from MRT Banqiao Station. The wife in the young owner-couple team is from Chongqing, in mainland China’s Sichuan Province; the name “ChuanFu” means “Sichuan capital.” The façade windows are filled with traditional Chinese latticework; the interior features wall-mounted Sichuan opera masks and hanging lanterns featuring intricate artwork in the style of traditional paper-cut art.
ChuanFu specializes, no surprise, in authentic Sichuan mala hotpot. The key to Sichuan hotpot is called “old/aged oil,” i.e. simmered repeatedly to intensify taste, which is added to the stock. It features a dozen-plus spices, Chinese medicinal herbs, and other items. ChuanFu laboriously makes the real deal, specially importing Sichuan bean paste, fermented black beans, dried chili, and peppercorns. Its specialty is numbing-spicy “nine palaces” hotpot, featuring ingredients separated while immersed in the stock among nine tic-tac-toe sections, preventing flavor migration. Thicker meat cuts like tripe and intestines are blanched shabu-shabu style in the highest-heat middle square.
Add: 1F, No. 111-1, Hansheng E. Rd., Banqiao Dist., New Taipei City (新北市板橋區漢生東路111-1號1樓)
Tel: (02) 2951-2331
The elegant Shanghai restaurant is just a few steps from MRT Songjiang Nanjing Station. The female owner, who hails from Shanghai, has imported a specialty hotpot to Taiwan – “four stories” hotpot. This type in fact originated in Chongqing, Sichuan. The bottom level is for regular hotpot blanching. In mainland China hotpot stock is not consumed, and the flavors are much stronger. If desired, Shanghai’s stock can be divided into two halves by a wall, one side numbing-spicy.
The second level is for charcoal barbecuing – seafood, meat cuts, cong you bing (Chinese scallion pancakes, etc.). The house provides special house-made cumin powder and Japanese-style shichimi (“seven spice powder”) for seasoning. The third level is used for Shaoxing wine chicken pot, a popular delicacy. The top level is for the steaming of such goodies as fresh veggies, dim sum selections, and seafood, notably in-season Shanghai hairy crab. Almost all ingredients are sourced in-season in Taiwan; all spices/seasonings are brought in from mainland China.
Add: B1, No. 97, Sec. 2, Nanjing E. Rd., Zhongshan Dist., Taipei City (台北市中山區南京東路二段97號地下一樓)
Tel: (02) 2521-6161
English and Chinese
|cong you bing||蔥油餅|
|“four stories” hotpot||四層火鍋|
|Neihu Flower Market||內湖花市|
|“nine palaces” hotpot||九宮格火鍋|
|Shaoxing wine chicken pot||花雕雞鍋|