June 09, 2008
Although your hotel and the more upscale restaurants will most likely cater to non-Mandarin speaking customers, it is fun to get out and explore the more local places.
So in the next few posts, I'll be looking at places that you will most likely encounter in every major food area.
One of the more popular kind of local establishment is the hotpot restaurant. Some of these places will have "Shabu Shabu" written on the store front, otherwise they are characterized by typically tables for four with bowls giving off copious amounts of steam sunk into the tables. These bowls are the "hotpots" for which the restaurants are known.?
The hotpot is basically filled with soup or stock, in which you cook your food of choice. In general, you order a kind of meat or seafood and you will be given a mixed selection of vegetables to go with it.
Cabbage is usually the main ingredient, with the rest being either seasonal selections or the choice of the restaurant. Typically this will be from tomatos, mushrooms, leafy green vegetables, seaweed, taro, pumpkin and corn. Some variety of tofu is also likely along with a variety of white or multi-colored items. These are most often fish based, although they can be dumplings and some things I have still not exactly determined. In some restaurants you will be able to choose the things you want to cook from a buffet type are.
The good thing is that you cook these items in the soup yourself. If you don't like the look of something, you don't have to cook it.
An egg is also usually supplied which you can crack into the soup if you like. I don't, and there is really no "correct" way to eat so there's no pressure. You will most likely also have the choice of either rice or noodles.
After you have your order placed, you need to go and make the sauce into which you dip the cooked items. This does take a bit of trial and error, and the proportions really depend on your taste. In general the ingredients will be as in the photo below.
As I mentioned, there is no right or wrong way to do this, which makes it all the more fun. I prefer a good dollop of the barbecue sauce, then a good sprinkling of spring onions, garlic and mashed radish, although I stay clear of the celantro for no other reason that I cannot stand the stuff! A touch of the dofuru sauce, splash of vinegar topped up with soy sauce. Mix et voila!
If you like it hot, add chillis. I prefer to add them to the hotpot sauce itself so the effect is not so mouth blasting but you still get that buzz, but again each to their own.
To cook, my personal preference is to get the cabbage going first with the other vegetables and mysterious objects, then cook the meat slice by slice. Things can tend to get lost, but the meat is usually best not overcooked, so it pays to keep track!
You'll have to use your best judgement of whether things are ready to eat, then dip them into your sauce and off you go.
Each restaurant has it's own secret recipe for the soup, and it's this that makes the major difference. There is a great selection though, from the standard chicken base to sugar cane, curry and more. I'd advice just getting the basic as you start off, then get more advanced if you like it.
Another special kind of hotpot you might come across is the "spicy hotpot". This is a dark red and most common during the winter. Be warned, this has spice built in and can truly be eye-watering. It does warm you up though in the "cold" of a Taiwan winter.
I should also mention that there will almost certainly be a vegetarian option for the stock. This would a good time for your phrase book.
Thrown in for the price, you are also likely to get free tea or juice, and even ice cream and coffee. It's a good value option for a surprisingly filling meal and good fun to boot.
Although perhaps naturally most common during the winter, the air-conditioning will be cranked up high enough inside the restaurant to make it feel like winter at other times of the year.
On a final note, of all the places I have taken visitors to Taiwan, the hotpot has been the most successful. Now you know the secrets, there is no excuse not to visit one!
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