Chinese steamboat or hot pot 火锅 is an integral part of our food culture. Every Chinese New Year, household stores advertise electric steamboats. I’ve had my trusty steamboat for about 20 years already and it has seen us through many celebratory meals.
The wonderful thing about steamboat is that it’s about simmering a whole variety of ingredients in a good stock and eating the food with a variety of dipping sauces. The Japanese have their shabu-shabu. The main difference is that the soup stock is usually bland and is just a medium for cooking the meat and vegetables in, but the emphasis is on the dipping sauce that brings in the flavour. Chinese steamboat stock is actually the star of the show and there is a huge variety of stocks that can be chosen especially when you eat out. I remember years ago being really frustrated when we first went to live in the US…American Chinese food is nothing like the piquant and delicate flavours of Chinese food in South East Asia, but the one common thread was steamboat – that was the same and we ended up in this steamboat restaurant in Teaneck, New Jersey almost every Sunday after church. Those meals helped to keep the waves of homesickness away.
Our go-to stock at home is usually a kind of chicken stock but somewhat amped up. Of course steamboat soup tastes best after cooking multiple rounds of meat and vegetables but I am a strong believer that the first spoonful of soup must already be amazing. So if I am feeling rich and celebratory I often throw in some abalone or fish maw stock, or if I am feeling that the system needs a boost, I will add in some Chinese herbs. The one soup stock we won’t have at home is the Mala sauce 麻辣 (a sichuanese sauce made of Sichuan peppers and chilli) that hubs had a really bad experience of in Malacca. It was a truly numbing experience. My favourite chicken-based stock is really quick and easy to do in the Instant Pot. The Instant Pot chugs along happily by itself while you chop up the vegetables and prepare the rest of the ingredients for the steamboat.
The great thing about steamboat is that you can make it completely low carb. I usually get beef that is sliced paper thin, a white fish that is thinly sliced, cuttlefish (my family adores the beef and cuttlefish whereas I’m the one who loves the fish) and some prawns. I had a mini argument with the fishmonger who was trying to sell me a super-expensive threadfin fillet (he knew it was the last day of Chinese New Year where most families have steamboat as part of the celebration). But I concede that the juicy prawns he recommended were just right for the steamboat.
I also make my own low carb meatballs for the soup. And I also get lots of tofu, tofu puffs, enoki mushrooms, Napa cabbage, Chinese spinach and crown daisy as the lighter ingredients for the steamboat. For dipping sauces I usually offer a more Japanese style with sesame sauce and ponzu sauce, but I also can’t do without my favourite Lao Gan Ma (Old Godmother) chili sauce!
From left: Japanese style sesame sauce, ponzu sauce and Lao Gan Ma chilli sauce.
Steamboat is superlatively easy to put together. After all, the cooking happens at the table. I was hilariously surprised that V, one of the new people in the dinner group turned out to be the avid cook who had precision timing for every ingredient and ended up the default cook of the night. As usual we ate way too much but it was a whole load of fun. There’s nothing better than getting your hand in for steamboat.
My Favourite Steamboat Base
- 2 chicken carcasses
- 1 knob of ginger, peeled and sliced
- 1 bunch spring onions, trimmed
- 5 red dates
- 1 tbsp wolfberries
- 5 medium dried scallops
- 1 can fish maw soup or the brining liquid from a can of abalone (optional)
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- Clean the chicken carcasses and put into the pot with the ginger and spring onions, salt and peppercorns. Fill the pot up to the top mark with water.
- Seal the pot and put on manual high pressure for 1 hour.
- Allow natural pressure release. Drain the stock and discard the chicken bones.
- Put the stock back in the pot and add the red dates, wolfberries and scallops. Put the pot on sauté mode and simmer for another 15 minutes. You can top up the liquid with water if you need a lot of stock for the steamboat.
- When ready, the stock can be transferred to the steamboat cooker, ready for use.