A Hot Pot for Cold Bellies

By Baxley Aldworth

For the unaccustomed, walking into a hot pot restaurant can be a confusing experi­ence. Mysterious holes lay in the middle of tables, waitresses deliver uncooked food to customers, and no cooks are in sight. What is going on here?

Fortunately, there is a method to the madness. Hot pot restaurants are where the customers cook food on their own using a boiling pot of broth. The origins of hot pot cooking are uncertain, but some culinary histo­rians believe it originated in Mongolia, gained popularity in China, and then spread to other parts of Eastern Asia. Besides being delicious, the hot pot cooking method and its ingredients are also very good for you.

Being the burgeoning hot pot connois­seur that I am, I set off for a taste of authentic hot pot cuisine at Mina’s La Mei Hot Pot in Flushing, Queens. Upon arrival, a waitresses led me to one of the afore­mentioned tables with a hole and offered me one of five different hot pot flavors: original, Chinese medicine, pickled cabbage, mildly spicy, and very spicy. Note: very spicy is a major understatement! This flavor should only be ordered by those who have an extremely high tolerance to spiciness. You have been warned. I was feeling a bit under the weather so I opted for the Chinese medicine flavor because it provides a nice boost to immune systems.

The next choice I had to make was the kind of meat I wanted to enjoy. The list of options was lengthy, ranging from beef, lamb, chicken, seafood, to my selection, pork. The lovely young waitress then fired up the Chinese-medicine-flavored hot pot and brought out fresh raw pork and a platter of food containing a cornucopia of uncooked vegetables, tofu, and seafood.

Now it’s time to eat, but there’s more than one way to do it. Some people like to toss a lot of their food into the hot pot all at once. I like to take a more methodical approach and do it one at a time. Of course, I’ve also learned from some hot pot veterans to put the hardest-to ­cook things in first, like the pumpkin slice and the corn on the cob. The meat didn’t take long to cook and should only be left in for 10-15 seconds to avoid overcooking. Pretty soon, I was working my way through glass noodles, bok choy, golden mushrooms, bean curd, fish balls, wood fungus (surprisingly tasty), crab meat, and bamboo among other things. It was extremely tasty and filling, without being a heavy meal that made me want to take a nap immediately afterwards. I have to say, it was a perfect wintertime meal. I highly recommend La Mei Hot Pot to anyone seeking to escape the cold for a delicious, healthy, and warm meal!