WHEN THE Mongolians first conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty in 1271, they brought along with them their culinary tastes as well, such as living in yurts (the big palaces they built made them feel claustrophobic) and open campfires, where big pots of bubbling soup were used to cook thin sliced lamb, mushrooms and vegetables.
Lucky for the Chinese this style of cooking, call huo guo () or Hot Pot, really caught on in a big way. In Beijing it has become as popular as roast Peking Duck.
And now, all the way on the other side of the globe, this delicious trend has made it to our city at last.
Andy Ruan, owner of Asian River on Waters, had a feeling Savannah would be happy to receive this culinary blessing, and with his creative turn of mind, sought to find the perfect way to present it.
Hot Pot had limited success at Asian River, though, possibly because the restaurant had such a large and detailed menu of other successful items to choose from like sushi and fried rice dishes. The secret had to be in the presentation: make the main attraction the star!
While Fire Wok, his brand new venture at the corner of Bull and Derenne, has a good selection of tempting dumplings and dim sum, as well as Americanized standards like Sesame Chicken, Hot Pot stands apart as the Diva of Dishes here.
No longer a buffet in the ordinary sense, the tables already there (from the now defunct Chen’s) are now used to display a multi-colored array of thin sliced beef, pork, chicken and lamb, various kinds of sausage, tofu, fresh seafood as well as noodles both thin and wide, and greens, okra, corn, 4-5 kinds of mushrooms and cabbage, even taro root. Each dish is $4.
Each time I go I see smiling family groups, hordes of students, and tables piled high with blue and white china dishes. And in the middle, the square gas burner with its silver pot sending up a fragrant plume of steam.
The pots are divided in half so that each diner can have his own space to cook and are usually served with a mild broth on one side, a hot, spicy chili oil brew in the other half. If neither diner is inclined towards tongue-numbing heat, just ask for both sides mild.
That simmering broth is just the basis for your own unique creation. In Beijing, hot pot is served with an incredible dipping sauce. Though not available here, you will be able to mix a reasonable facsimile on your own.
Look to the condiments bar to find fresh garnishes and numerous sauces both innocent and fiery. Two scoops of sesame jam (paste), one scoop of peanut sauce, add fresh minced garlic, green onions and cilantro, a single spoon of garlic chili sauce, then stir in enough soy sauce to make it less dense—voilà!
The thin-sliced meats and seafood cook very quickly, though veggies like the corn cob chunks and okra require a little more patience, so put these in at the start. The okra is divine, coming out of the pot with a silky soft texture, and the tofu chunks take on the flavor of each ingredient in such a way as to melt on the tongue.
Ask the server for a small wire scoop to bring your cooked fare out of the soup, and a small separate dish to eat from—believe me, eating straight from the pot will leave you a burned tongue, fast!
The broth, oh, my. This is the pièce de résistance! I always add fresh garlic, cilantro, green onions and various condiments to mine—each according to his taste, though. With the combos of red meats, chicken, fresh seafood, tender mushrooms plus whatever condiment your heart desires, the fires of the hotpot produce a distinctive broth whose divinity only you will be responsible for.
The hot pot broth is an art in and of itself, and I’ve found that even those who think they have no particular skill in cooking, can produce an incredible take-home treat. Yes, you’ll want to scoop it out, every bit, so be sure to request a plastic container with lid.
Why? Because it will become the basis of a wonderfully convenient and delicious meal the next day.
Heat it up in a pot, throw in noodles of your choice, a few raw eggs laid gently on the bubbling surface, or tofu chunks or meatballs, and just before serving toss in a handful of green onion and cilantro—a very easy meal that requires no added spices or herbs—the taste and ease of this soup is addictive!
Pan-fried pork buns and Crab Rangoon may be more familiar, and carnivores will love the Short Beef Ribs or Mongolian Beef. Andy also serves here his famous Fire Wok Bowl of lobster tail, shrimp, and scallops tossed with bamboo shoots, peppers, leek and dressed in a fine basil red curry sauce. The wine and beer license is due to arrive in January.
If you have room, the soft little custard buns or coconut cakes will finish up the appetite nicely without being too heavy, or my favorite, sesame balls fried golden and filled with sweetened red bean paste. Check the back of the menu for Wok Star dishes, various noodle and rice choices or teriyaki—Andy aims to please all tastes!