CHI LE MA

Ev­ery­one’s fa­vorite com­mu­nal meal is now an in­stant con­ve­nience for one 方便火锅: “一人食”爱好者的福音

The World of Chinese - - Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter - BY SUN JIAHUI (孙佳慧)

吃了吗

If any dish can unite war­ring Chi­nese food lovers— split by end­less de­bates over tofu jelly be­ing salty or sweet, or whether to eat jiaozi or rice cakes dur­ing Spring Fes­ti­val—it must be hot pot ( huoguo), the boil­ing bowl in which any­thing can be cooked, and around which all gour­mands can sit in har­mony.

Few meals could be eas­ier to ar­range. But for some din­ers, even boil­ing food in wa­ter is too tall an or­der, as shown by the rapid rise of the in­stant hot pot, or

“方便火锅”( f`ng­bi3n hu6gu4, con­ve­nient hot pot).

Tak­ing its nod from the hum­ble packet of in­stant noo­dles, fang­bian huoguo sim­ply re­quires room-tem­per­a­ture wa­ter. Its grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity is not only a tes­ta­ment to ma­tur­ing tastes in con­ve­nience food, but also a mi­nor revo­lu­tion in how tra­di­tional huoguo is served.

The huoguo has al­ways been as­so­ci­ated with a fire­side at­mos­phere. The name lit­er­ally means “fire pot,” re­fer­ring to the two es­sen­tial com­po­nents for cook­ing—a clay, cop­per, or stain­less steel pot, placed on a crack­ling fire. For fang­bian huoguo, though, nei­ther is nec­es­sary. The “pot” be­comes a plas­tic box with two lay­ers, pack­aged with var­i­ous bags of sea­son­ing and freeze-dried ver­sions of the usual in­gre­di­ents: meat, tofu, veg­eta­bles and, of course, noo­dles.

Like MRE mil­i­tary ra­tions, the meal is eas­ily cooked with a wa­ter-ac­ti­vated, flame­less heat pack (usu­ally con­tain­ing quick­lime) in the bot­tom layer of the con­tainer. When boiled, the wa­ter steams the in­gre­di­ents on top: voila, 15 min­utes later, you’re good to go—and we do mean “go.”

The tra­di­tional huoguo is a feast of to­geth­er­ness, of­ten last­ing hours and re­quir­ing sev­eral re­fills of wa­ter: As Tony Le­ung Chiu Wai says in See You To­mor­row, “Those you can eat hot pot with are from the same world as you. It doesn’t mat­ter what you eat, it only mat­ters who sits be­side you.”

The fang­bian ver­sion, though, dis­penses with such messy in­ti­macy: It’s a one-pot shot, a soli­tary act of sus­te­nance that dis­penses with ri­tual. Not ev­ery­one likes the lively huoguo at­mos­phere. Qing dy­nasty scholar and gour­mand Yuan Mei once ob­served in his Menus From the Gar­den of Con­tent­ment that “when peo­ple treat guests in win­ter, huoguo is of­ten served; the noisy at­mos­phere is surely an­noy­ing.”

Still, those visit­ing a hot pot res­tau­rant alone may find them­selves get­ting sym­pa­thetic stares from other din­ers. Last year, a vi­ral list on the in­ter­net ti­tled “The 10 Lev­els of Lone­li­ness” ranked “eat­ing huoguo by one­self ” as the sixth loneli­est ac­tiv­ity, sad­der even than go­ing to the cinema solo. At the pop­u­lar hot pot chain Haidi­lao, staff will of­ten place a stuffed toy at the ta­ble of any soli­tary diner.

Not sur­pris­ingly, some lon­ers would rather not eat huoguo at all than go to a res­tau­rant and or­der din­ner for one. And while some chains, like Xi­abu Xi­abu, of­fer a per­son­al­ized mini pot for each diner, most cus­tomers visit with a com­pan­ion and share the raw in­gre­di­ents. Even try­ing to make fang­bian huoguo in the of­fice is risky, as the sights and smells will cer­tainly at­tract co­work­ers’ at­ten­tion: You can take the hot pot out of the com­mu­nal bowl, but you still can’t take the com­mu­nity out of a hot pot.

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