“We have hot pot.” The words floated from her lips like wisps of air off a Swallow’s wing. My mind momentarily soared into a hypnotic, almost dreamlike state of ecstasy interrupted only by my desire to respond. My lips barely forming the words, “I’ll take that!” through my Cheshire smile and quivering vocalizations. You may ask, nay, you may demand to know what it is that could drive me into such a state and later cause my language to flower unnecessarily on the page. Hot pot. Glorious Chinese hot pot is to blame for my questionable behavior. And to have found hot pot in Chattanooga made my grinchy heart grow 10 sizes that day.
Hot pot is sometimes referred to as Chinese fondue, but bears only a passing resemblance to the dish beehive-topped swingers gathered around in the early 1970s. Hot pot is a social meal, meant to be enjoyed by a small or large group, but I wasn’t going to let my solo outing get in the way of this pleasant surprise. I had originally come to Mikado Sushi Bar Noodle House on Lee Highway to get the “Special Noodles Soup.” A mixing bowl-sized portion of bright chili-red broth, Chinese noodles, seafood and vegetables. It’s comfort food 101. On a whim, I asked if there were any items that were particularly special to them but not on the menu. I was completely surprised when she mentioned hot pot.
There are several varieties of hot pot, but all involve a communal pot of simmering liquid, an array of meats, seafood, vegetables, tofu and a dipping sauce for a condiment. Like the fondue we are familiar with in the U.S., the meats or vegetables are dipped into the liquid to cook, removed, dipped into a sauce and eaten. The liquid is typically spicy but not always, as in Mikado’s version. Theirs is a hearty chicken broth with a handful of chilis dancing around like little synchronized swimmers. Mikado’s ratio of whole chilis to broth makes it very mild.
If you’re lucky enough to find Szechuan hot pot get ready for the sweet, sweet heat. Szechuan hot pot is considered one of the spiciest traditional dishes in the world and it will give you a sweaty, endorphin-fueled rush like nothing else you can legally ingest. Periodically, Asian Food and Gifts on Hixson Pike will carry Szechuan hot pot spice and you can make it at home, that is, unless I beat you to it and buy it all like some Andrew Zimmern-meets-Hoarders special on the Travel Channel.
But back to Mikado’s. The first item to arrive at my table was a butane tabletop burner and a small wok-shaped pot with the broth and chilis. It quickly came to a slow simmer as the other ingredients arrived. Looking at the shrimp, cuttlefish, thick slices of tofu, raw egg, cellophane noodles, straw mushrooms and other vegetables I felt like the witch leering at Hansel and Gretel, except this time these little guys were going into the pot.
Hot pot is a free for all—a bare-knuckled brawl of seafood, vegetables, broth and carnal desire. Friends and family gather around this cauldron of comforting goodness sharing the experience of cooking, eating and the periodic fist fight over a particular fleet of shrimp making its way around the pot. Since I was dining alone, I had this baby all to myself. Suck it, family and friends.
As time passes the hot pot will simmer and reduce what was once a nice broth into a rich, flavorful soup ready for the noodles. After a few minutes of cooking, the noodles and broth turn any sounds of conversation into muffled mumblings of slurping and satisfaction. I recommend this dish be experienced with a group of friends or family gathered around a steaming pot of food, laughing, talking and smiling. Or you can single-handedly tackle what is supposed to be a communal meal while the Chinese patrons look at you like the gluttonous American that lives in their stereotype.
Next time, I’ll bring a friend.
Mike McJunkin is a Chattanooga foodie and chef. Email him at email@example.com.