Only in Taiwan – Hot Pot aka Shabu-shabu

Many readers will be familiar with what I am going to call Taiwanese hot pot. But let’s get something straight. Food porn is not my thing.

Other than watching the occasional episode of No Reservations, or reading Michael Procopio’s Food for the Thoughtless, I think about food when it’s time to eat or I’m scrolling through channels and Masterchef Jr. Who doesn’t love Australian kids with an insane knowledge of food and eating?

The telephoto lens works best in appetizer situations, I think.

When I’m dining out, it doesn’t bother me that the quartet of diners at the next table over are staging and posing their seven-course meal, or that all four have their cameras out, each taking identical pictures of the dishes as they arrive, in fact I’m amused, really, despite knowing full well that a little chunk of the digital universe is now occupied by redundant and pointless binary references to your “moment.” You’re excited about your food. That’s cool. Doesn’t matter to me one way or the other except that sometimes the camera flashes are distracting.

Having experienced full food service industry immersion, I see through the smoke and mirrors—the objectification and narcissism—of having a meal. Your experience leads you to project absolute importance and meaning into your existence by taking pictures of almost everything that goes in your mouth. It’s really too bad that people don’t walk around recording every word that comes out of their mouths, though I suspect that’s not that far off the horizon. Anyway, there is nothing especially magical about my bacon cheeseburger and therefore, there’s no seduction involved.

The only time I feel a sense of wonder and appreciation in a restaurant is when they get things right.

Though not fully stripped of pleasure and enjoyment, eating, particularly my evening meal is simply and exclusively a matter of utility. And Taiwanese hot pot (aka shabu-shabu) is my go-to choice for dinner—the runner-up being sushi. In my view, other than eating at home, hot pot and sushi are the most utilitarian dining options in existence: you really can’t screw them up.

Mongolian hot pot.

Hot pot goes back more than a millennium, originating in Mongolia where the main ingredient was mutton, horse, or whatever had four legs and couldn’t outrun the Mongolians; it then spread to southern China during the Tang Dynasty and really got roiling in the Yuan Dynasty – which shouldn’t mean shit to the average reader but come on, a little history is not a dangerous thing. In time, regional variations developed with different ingredients such as seafood and sadly, a lot of other animals that would probably make you sick if I mentioned them here.

Moving along. Basically, people were putting whatever they could get their hands on into the pot, and who the fuck could blame them? You got a bunch of frogs jumping around, call them “field chickens” and start cooking those fuckers up. Let’s do it! By the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), the hot pot became a staple throughout most of China. In today’s modern homes, the traditional coal-heated pot has been replaced by electric, gas and induction cookers. However, almost every household has some type of hot pot, just like in the 1970s when every American home had a Crock Pot, except nobody sat around watching it work.

Whisper-thin slices of lamb.

Because hot pot styles vary so much from region to region, many different ingredients are used. However, the following are very common: beef, pork, chicken, lamb, goat; fish, prawns, scallops, clams, mussels, squid, crab, lobster, octopus, cuttlefish, geoduck, sea cucumber, sea asparagus; beef balls, fish balls, shrimp balls; tofu, tofu skin; egg dumplings (dàn jiǎo); Chinese noodles; udon, cellophane noodles; bok choy, choy sum, Napa cabbage, spinach, bean sprouts; green beans, fat choi, Garland chrysanthemum, snake beans, mung beans, daikon, shallots; straw mushroom, enoki mushrooms, shiitake, Chinese black mushrooms, golden mushrooms; thinly sliced potatoes, taro, tomato, pumpkin, squash, watercress.

For those of you who aren’t sure how it works, what follows is the simplest description I could find: You’ve got a pot, a source of heat, some kind of liquid and something that is much tastier (and won’t kill you) if it’s been cooked. The foundation of hot pot is the broth which usually consists of water, salt and some vague sort of soup base—a weak chicken stock is my guess. While the hot pot is brought to a boil, ingredients are placed into the broth. The cooked food is usually accompanied with a dipping sauce. There are different cooking styles among hot pot enthusiasts.

Some like to place items into the hot pot at a leisurely pace, ostensibly to savor the cooking process, while others prefer to put everything in at once and wait anxiously for the hot pot to return to a boil so we can commence to eatin’. Due to evaporation the broth may need to be topped off but that’s usually not an issue when people are paying attention to their jobs. Once all the ingredients have been exhausted, attention turns to the resulting “soup,” consumed at the end of the main meal, before dessert.

The standard set of “complementary ingredients.”

Short of cutting and pasting the Wikipedia page which covers all the regional variations, the Taiwanese version is a closely-related variant of the Japanese sukiyaki and shabu-shabu, crossed with the Chinese hot pot, which of course is based on the granddaddy of them all, Mongolian hot pot.

Seeing this sign is like stumbling across a Denny’s in the middle of Death Valley.

Because Asian food culture is built around the gathering of family, it’s not surprising that hot pot is wildly popular in Taiwan. In addition to being prevalent, Taiwanese hot pot joints come in countless varieties. Of course they do. The most common is the “mini” hot pot restaurant, where each diner has his or her own pot and served with a very uniform broth. The Taiwanese call these places shabu-shabu, even though it’s technically inaccurate but who cares? New shabu-shabu joints pop up every month and Taiwan’s second largest chain-franchise Cash City has several dozen locations spread out across the island—the orange sign is pretty hard to miss and for some, it’s a beacon of sanity in the madness of Taiwan’s restaurant scene. The “mini” joints are followed by the more traditional family-style hot pots, where the group shares one big pot (and there are several types of broth to choose from). Then there are the specialty hot pot joints, the most popular being the málà huǒguō meaning spicy hot pot. Some places are all-you-can-eat buffet style (popular with penny-pinching students and gluttonous cheapskates), while others are strictly pay-by-the-plate.

Family style hot pot.

Chain store outlets dominate the Taiwan hot pot scene; they’re literally like convenience stores. The business model is so entrenched and repetitious that there is nothing but a name to distinguish each restaurant except by price. Even the self-serve desserts and ice cream are nearly identical. Whoever is running a 150TWD ($5US) promo set meal will be the busiest joint on the block. According to various sources, there are approximately 850 hot pot chain store outlets in the country, the most of any category. Chains specializing in Japanese or Korean food are a distant second.

Add to that the plethora of independently operated hot pot outlets, and there are somewhere around 4,000-5,000 hot pot establishments in Taiwan. Meanwhile, the majority of joints are very cheap to moderately priced, however there are several super high-end establishments where Wagyu or Kobe are your only beef choices on the menu. The Taiwanese do sophisticated shabu-shabu astonishingly well; just be ready for the bill. All in all, prices range from 150TWD at a chain outlet to 5,000TWD ($180US) + per person in the swanky joint with polished teak chopsticks and a wine list loaded with 4X markups on Australian reds. The last time I went to an all you-can-eat joint, I paid 500TWD ($18US), about double what I normal pay for a single meal but fairly close to the joint’s profit margin. They probably didn’t lose money on me. However, I ate an absurd and obscene amount of food; I felt like a snake that swallowed a basketball, spending a miserable, sleepless night tossing and turning, at one point thinking, right, that’s the last time we do that.

Serious hot potters should notice one immediate incongruity. The burner controls are on the opposite side, meaning the staff is charged with monitoring your boil level. This is not cool.

Without empirical data to back it up, I cannot say that I eat more hot pot than any other foreigner in Taiwan, just as I cannot crown myself the king of a non-existent domain. I’m sure there’s some expat who eats hot pot more than five nights a week, which would be one more than me. My neighborhood has several different hot pot joints, differing in ownership, general physical layout, style and location. While I routinely hit the same joint—the closest one, about a two-minute walk including the wait to cross Anhe Road—they are closed on Mondays, so I’ll switch it up and go the slightly fancier place. Every once in a while, I’ll hit the málà huǒguō joint, even though it means I’ll be gastronomically crippled for the proceeding 24 hours.

In full disclosure, I didn’t know hot pot existed until arriving in Taiwan almost five years ago, and maybe that says more about my ignorance of Asian food than anything else, and sickening if you consider that I lived in San Francisco for the better part of a decade. Once turned on to shabu-shabu, I kept wondering how and why I never heard of it before. In subsequent visits to L.A. and S.F., I did find a couple of shabu-shabu places but they didn’t have the same Taiwanese panache. After several disappointing visits to mainland Chinese chain outlets which advertised “Taiwanese style shabu-shabu,” I realized that Taiwanese shabu-shabu can be found only in Taiwan.

Yeah, gimme the lion head.

Due to my poor Mandarin skills—and “poor” is being generous—dining alone in many Chinese-style restaurants is almost out of the question; unless they have English descriptions on the menu or one of the kids can speak English, but I can’t count on that. Taiwan and all of Asia are still warming up to the idea of “servers” in the sense that many of us former and current restaurant drones are familiar and comfortable with. Generally speaking, Taiwan doesn’t have servers; the typical chain outlet has a micro-phalanx of kids in uniforms or matching t-shirts, who take your order, bring you what you ordered, top off your pot with cool broth, or if they’re brave, engage you in what is by now, a very common form of Q and A called ‘Where You From’ Starring Me!? usually but not always in that sequence.

Pictures on the menu help for the pointing, but they won’t get me through every single deal. Many times I feel trapped, tongue-tied and stupid, like the stereotypical asspat—trying to be cool and failing by trying in the first place. This is not because I can’t communicate what I want to the server; it’s because I don’t know what the fuck I want. In terms of reading Chinese characters, I can generously identify somewhere around 60 to 70 different foods, preparations, and ingredients; most of those I can also say correctly. We’re talking the very basics here: fish, pork, garlic, cabbage, etc. The main problem is that nearly every Chinese menu has half a dozen variations of each primary dish, for instance, beef. Beef in oyster sauce, garlic fried beef, exploded beef, beef with broccoli, beef with scallions and shrimps, beef in vinegar soy sauce, it just gets fucking endless and tedious, and I sit down and point at something “beef” on the menu and hope the server doesn’t ask me any more questions. But they always do. Do want this? Do you want that? How do you want this? When should I bring that?

My buddy Zhao (and his wife), in our happier days.

One staple of my diet used to be shrimp fried rice from a street-side vendor in the night market; these little outdoor diners are called lùbiēn tān (路邊攤). Even though the fried rice was loaded with MSG, perhaps because I knew it was loaded with MSG, I loved that stuff. Once a week for a whole year, I’d march down to Linjiang Street and get a jumbo portion of fried rice. Of course, in an hour I’d be hungry again, but that’s one of the benefits of living steps from a night market—you’re not far from more food. So like I was saying, I was getting the fried rice once a week for a year, and the guy who prepared it seemed to understand my Chinese, because I asked for xiā chǎofàn, and that’s what he gave me, every single time.

After a while, we got to know each other and I wouldn’t even have to order; I could just post up, smile in recognition, and Zhao would do his thing. A year into the routine, I marched down to get my fried rice only to find my friendly vendor Zhao replaced by a surly looking woman with an attitude to match. You know how some people just have that look like they are unhappy to be alive, let alone frying shit up in a night market? OK, that’s my new girl. So I say, “Where’s Zhao?”

“Huh?” she grunted with annoyance. The thought bubble above her head said: “Fuck off, big nose.”

“OK, OK. Wǒ xiǎng yīgè dà de shùnxù xiā chǎofàn.” I would like one large order of shrimp fried rice, and I’m being polite about it, bitch, so help me out.

“Huh?” more attitude and annoyance. She glared with the intensity of a prisoner in a cell.

“Yīgè dà de shùnxù xiā chǎofàn.” I looked around for a sympathetic local but all I saw was a couple of bemused high school kids who weren’t about to get involved in this bullshit.

The woman waved me off. “I don’t understand you.” She thrust the all-Chinese menu at me and demanded, “What do you want?”

I found shrimp fried rice on the menu and pointed at it, again saying, “Yīgè dà de shùnxù xiā chǎofàn.”

“Huh? What do you want?” She went back to cooking and ignoring.

One shrimp fried rice.

Exasperated, about to leave, I remembered something about certain Chinese establishments. Instead of a server arriving with a notepad, each table or seat is equipped with a pen and an order form listing everything on the menu. If you know how to write the numbers in Chinese, (which you should whether you like it or not), you can easily mark off the quantities for the items you want. The server will then come around and repeat back all the things you’ve checked off. Fortunately, most street vendors use that system, which because of my rapport with Zhao, I never needed until now. Grabbing one of the order forms, I checked off the shrimp fried rice and handed it to the woman, who was neither impressed nor happy to take my business.

“For here or take away?” she snapped.

“Take away.”

Fan-tastic. Transaction finalized, I went home and ate the fried rice. Two hours later, it’s like a ball of knives in my stomach. What the fuck did that woman do to me? I wanted to throw up but all I could do was gag and writhe in pain. For the next two days I was sick like a fucking animal. If there is anything positive about violent diarrhea, it’s that theoretically, your entire digestive system gets flushed. If there was stuff hanging around in your gut for no good reason, it won’t be for long. I probably lost five pounds in 48 hours.

Traumatized, the shrimp fried rice routine was over. Every time I passed by the woman on my way to the night market, we exchanged antagonistic glances—more like sneers—and I never went back. That’s when I tapped in to the hot pot racket.

Aside from being available only in Taiwan, herein is why I love Taiwanese hot pot (or as they call it, shabu-shabu) so much. Yes, it’s cheap. That’s nice. It’s also easy, meaning I don’t have to speak a lot of Chinese to get what I want. The ingredients are clean and super fresh. You can’t beat that. Moreover, it’s one of the few meals that you control in terms of pacing. Water boiling too fast? Turn it down, chief.

I trust the USDA Food Pyramid.

And finally, it contains a well-balanced selection from all of the food groups. A complete hot pot meal is like eating the USDA nutrition pyramid. Oh, and I almost forgot: it’s one of the few sit-down restaurants in town where a single diner can feel comfortable. You don’t have to look at anybody or twiddle your thumbs waiting for the server to come and take your salad plate away. From the moment you sit down, it’s just you and the pot, baby.

My joint.

We’ve now arrived at the spot where I’m going to casually walk you through my hot pot routine. Pictured (to the left) is my number one go-to “mini” hot pot joint and unfortunately I have to stop and explain that Chinese and Japanese have some shared characters, a lot of them actually, and the name of this place in Chinese would be Nàiliáng Shabu-Shabu(奈良涮涮)however everyone refers to it by the Japanese pronunciation on the sign: Nara Shabu-Shabu. Thus, Nàiliáng is the Chinese name for Nara; Nara (奈良市 Nara-shi) is the capital city of Nara Prefecture in the Kansai region of Japan. Why does this matter? It matters because generally speaking, I want to know the name of the fucking joint that feeds me four times a week—five in the cold winter months. Rest assured, I simply call it “the hot pot joint over there.”

Yào chī shénme? Xiao-yu is here to help.

Come on in. We’re greeted by Xiao-yu (lit. “little fish”), one half of the brother-sister ownership and operation team. They bought the place lock, stock and barrel, a little over two years ago from a bizarre group of post-menopausal women who still live in the neighborhood. The new ownership team didn’t even bother to change the name or the décor, which is almost unheard of in the Taiwanese small business racket—that’s another episode in itself. I’ve been going to Nara Shabu-Shabu for approximately four years continuously, excepting of course the days, weeks, and months I’m not physically in Taipei. Never mind. At this point two years into our acquaintance, Xiao-yu and I are dialed in; our exchanges are brief and to the point.

“Yào chī shénme?” What are you eating tonight? she asks.

“Yángròu.” Gimme the lamb, I reply. “Bù​hǎo​yì​si, yào nà tiáo yú, bùshì gāoyáng.” No, wait, sorry, gimme the fish.

Time to eat.

Xiao-yu already knows that I want noodles instead of rice and to put the egg in the broth to be hard-boiled. The egg request is seen as “quite strange” by locals—we’ll get to that later when it comes to the dipping sauce. Arriving at my seat of choice, the first thing I do is pull out my trusty vial of salt, which I’m almost never without. Now, the salt thing is another one of my dining peculiarities. Many people have told me over the years that Chinese (and Taiwanese) palates are very sensitive to salt, i.e. they don’t like terribly salty stuff, and even though I think, “What is soy sauce but salty brown liquid?” but the assertion is borne out by experience.

Don’t leave home without it.

Only Western-style restaurants have salt and pepper shakers at the table. If you ask the lǎobǎn (boss) of your average shabu-shabu joint for some salt, they point at the door. Like most cultures, salt was considered an important commodity in ancient Japan.

Salt is used in rituals, traditions and customs which are still practiced today, and considered a symbol of holiness and purification. A practice still common is to place cone-shaped mounds of salt on dishes near the threshold of a restaurant, shop or even a residence. It means the place is clean and come on in!

The saltiest spot in the joint, other than where I’m sitting.

OK, that’s nice. Even though the broth is supposed to contain salt, 90% of all shabu-shabu broths are bland to the point of being insipid, and I doubt very strongly that Xiao-yu and her brother are adding salt to theirs. So I do. It will make a big difference about 20-30 minutes from now.

Xiao-yu returns with the pot and the obligatory plate of vegetables and what-not. You do not get to pick what they give you, but you can count on the essentials of cabbage, a chunk of corn on the cob, and enoki mushrooms. This is standard procedure: you get what you get. If you want something special like extra crab sticks or clams, you gotta ask for them. Xiao-yu places the pot on the electric burner and turns up the heat. I say thank you and she walks away, which is when I surreptitiously add half a teaspoon of salt to the broth. Now it’s time to head over to the condiment station where we will mix up our dipping sauce.

Shacha sauce or paste is made from soybean oil, garlic, shallots, chilis, brill fish, and dried shrimp. It has a savory and slightly spicy taste. Shacha is used as a base for soups, a rub for barbecued meats, a seasoning for stir fry dishes, and as a component for dipping sauces. Shacha is for all intents and purposes, Taiwanese barbeque sauce. The hot pot dipping sauce always starts with a liberal helping of shacha. Next, garlic—a heaping teaspoon at least. Then we add the minced chili pepper, onions, and a splash of soy sauce. You’ll notice that I skipped the beige-looking peanut sauce. As a matter of personal taste, I do not enjoy peanuts with my hot pot but every now and then I will squirt some white vinegar in there. OK, we’re done. Go back to our pot.

Shacha sauce with friends.

As mentioned earlier, there are basically two styles of eating hot pot: slow or fast. My hot pot style is fill the fucker up with all the starches (corn, dumplings) and oddities (fish balls, tiny hot dogs, woodear, mushrooms) and let them cook while moving to the cabbage. A lot of people jam all the cabbage in at once, but I like to break it up and cook only a few leaves at a time. Right about now, Xiao-yu returns with the fish and the noodles. First thing I do is get a couple of chunks of fish in the broth, since it’s usually frozen and it may take few extra minutes to cook. Once the fish is in, I start mixing the dipping sauce with my chopsticks.

Stupid weird boiled egg foreigner.

Traditionally, most people take the raw egg and either crack it open and mix it into the dipping sauce, or put it in the broth, where it does a free-form poaching thing and in my opinion just winds up a big mess. On the rare occasion, I’ll ask for a second egg and make a separate dipping sauce ala true sukiyaki style where you dip the ingredients in the raw egg before putting them in the pot. That’s a lot of fuss and at this point, my concentration is laser-like.

From here until all the fish has been cooked and consumed, it’s a musical chairs of ingredients. Stuff goes in while other stuff comes out. Once again, cutting across the traditional grain, I like to have my noodles in the middle of the meal, as opposed to the end, which is how the 99% does it.

Love the noodles.

So, what about beverages? Yeah, they have them. Most people go for the free bottomless tea, because they drink a lot of fucking tea over here. Anyway, beer or Coke is usually my refreshment of choice. The main problem is that Nara only stocks Taiwan Beer, which is figuratively sacrilegious to say but not a preferred beverage. No offense, Taiwan, but I really only ever drink your beer after I’ve already had a belly full of beer from somewhere else. Unless I’m desperate for a beer or hitting a Cash City on the other side of town at 1:30 a.m. (Taipei City has several 24 hours joints), hot pot and Taiwan Beer do not mix.

Everybody in the pot, let’s go!

Now we’re at the end. I’ve removed and peeled the hard-boiled egg, dusted it with a bit of salt, and filled a bowl with some of the remaining broth, which is now technically a soup—and a pretty good one, too. Over the course of the meal, I’ll probably add about a teaspoon of my personal dipping sauce to the broth, which gives it some character—the result is spicy-sour. As the soup cools, I eat the egg, corn and squash. Lastly, the soup is vanquished. Believe it or not, this is my favorite part of the meal, especially if I’ve had lamb, since it contributes a lot more fat to the broth than whitefish. Just sayin’. Anyway, the soup is like the wisp of fresh cream on top of a pumpkin torte. The entire experience is played out in the soup, which is why I always try to drain the pot before asking for the check. As I said, I try. There are many times when I cannot finish all the cabbage and I refused to eat the pig blood cake, so there’s always something left on the plate. Some say that’s waste, others would say it’s an offering to the hot pot gods.

Go for the chocolate. Skip the green shit – it’s not pistachio.

It’s not quite over yet. One thing all shabu-shabu places have is all-you-can-eat ice cream. Now, to me it seems extremely counter-intuitive to fill your belly full of hot stuff only to top it off with three scoops of frozen milky sugar. In fact, one of the reasons Chinese people love hot pot is that it supposedly warms the body—the spicy element is supposed to eliminate humidity in the blood. That makes sense to me, since I’m almost always sweating bullets at this point, thanks to the capsaicin severity of my dipping sauce. Therefore, unless I’m somehow still hungry, I usually skip the ice cream; I’d say one out of every ten visits I might have a bowl of chocolate.

I love menus doubling as placemats. It satisfies my inner utilitarian.

Tonight’s extravaganza is going to set me back 290TWD ($9.50US), which is quite reasonable for all-in on a gut-busting meal. There’s no extra tax or tipping nonsense. Two-ninety, thanks for coming, bye-bye. Having a Coke or a 330ml Taiwan Beer would have bumped it up to 330TWD. Some of my expat and crocodile friends think 300TWD is a luxurious amount of money to spend on a single evening meal, since they can knock it out with a 100TWD bowl of beef noodles and spend the rest on Taiwan Beer.

Last but not least, the soup.

The culture of thrift is exceedingly important in Taiwan and this concept is not lost on me, meaning I’ve done the math. My conclusion: to the average American imprinted with an American mindset, ten bucks for dinner is dirt cheap and practically unthinkable. Even those people who say “why should I pay to cook my own meal?” can get on the hot pot train and take it all the way to Clarksville, meet me at the station… My last trip to S.F., I couldn’t walk out of a 7-11 without spending $20 for a sandwich, a pack of smokes, a Gatorade, and a bottle of water. Consider what I would typically make for dinner on any given night in the U.S.: a nice piece of sauteed grouper (butter, olive oil, lemon, etc.), steamed broccoli and carrots, some kind of potato or pasta side dish (recyclable), served with half a loaf of French bread, plus the bottle of Rosenblum Zinfandel. Price tag not including the gas and electricity, with wine: $30; without wine: $15. Having compared my grocery bill to eating out in Taiwan, eating out saves me somewhere around $30US a week—it could be more if I made more of an effort, for sure. Being a cheapskate is not the point. Enveloping the experience while you have the chance is. The point.

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