Long ago, Chinese households did no baking or frying on th New Year. So boiled and steamed dishes became traditional for this most important holiday, the first day of the first month of the ancient Chinese lunar calendar. No wonder "hot pots" -- variously called Mongolian fire pots, Mohammedan fire kettles and Chinese fondue -- became the classic New Year specialty.
Nomadic Mongols get credit for originating the fire pot technique by submerging speared mutton slices in caldrons of boiling liquid. In the home, hot pots simultaneously warmed the kitchen while the food cooked -- a thrifty use of charcoal when fuel was scarce.
Hot pots are worth remembering as we approach the Chinese year 4689 (the year of the sheep), which begins this Friday. This is tableside cooking at its best and simplest. Just put out ingredients for dipping sauces along with a practically limitless choice of wafer-thin sliced meats, seafood and vegetables. Celebrants mix and match to taste as they cook the food themselves in simmering broth, making each meal a personal statement.
Since the food is just barely cooked in the liquid -- a technique called "rinsing" -- the quality of the raw ingredients must be top-notch. And while a charcoal-burning brass pot with a tapered chimney is traditional, electric fondue pots, frying pans, rice cookers, crock-pots and woks are easier to use.
Each place setting should include a plate for cooked food, a soup bowl and spoon for broth, a small bowl for sauce, chopsticks (or a fork) and a brass wire-mesh spoonlike strainer with a long handle (or a fondue fork or wood skewers). Each diner fills a strainer with tidbits, plunges it in the broth and uses chopsticks to transfer the cooked food to a plate and then to the dipping sauce. At the end of the meal, noodles go into the remaining, intensely rich broth for an extravagant finale of soup.
MONGOLIAN HOT POT
FOR THE BROTH:
4 quarts chicken broth
4 slices fresh ginger
4 scallions, cut in 2-inch lengths
2 teaspoons sesame oil
salt to taste
6 white mushrooms, sliced
4 bean curd cakes, halved
1/2 head napa or celery cabbage
1/2 pound rice noodles or 1/2 pound egg noodles
Additional ingredients in any desired proportions: Meats thinly sliced against the grain: chicken breast, flank steak, sirloin tip, pork tenderloin, leg of lamb. Shellfish: shrimp in the shell, sliced squid, shucked oysters, scallops, littleneck or cherrystone clams the shell. Vegetables: spinach, bean sprouts, trimmed and sliced leeks, quartered tomatoes, watercress, romaine lettuce, mustard greens, dried soaked black mushrooms.
Dipping sauce ingredients: soy sauce, minced fresh ginger, chopped coriander, minced garlic, toasted sesame seeds, chili paste or hot pepper flakes, dry mustard, wine vinegar.
Prepare and set aside: rice noodles soaked in boiling water to cover for 15 minutes or egg noodles cooked until barely tender.
Bring broth, ginger and scallions to a boil. Add oil and salt. Transfer to cooking pot to be used at the table and add mushrooms, bean curd and cabbage. Set out trays of meats and vegetables and have guests cook their own food to taste and dip in a sauce of their own making. At the end, add noodles to broth, cook until heated and ladle into bowls. Serves eight.