I can’t get help it, but I am hooked on Chinese hot pot or Huo Guo. My favorite place in Dalian is Huang Cheng Lao Ma on Gangwan Square, where you get a hot pot fueled by gas and sunk into the table. It is split in two chambers one for Szechuanese broth and one for a mild,white and milky broth.
My fascination with “dipping dishes” extends to cheese and meat fondue and similar dishes like sukiyaki and shabu shabu. The Szechuanese broth is not for the faint-hearted since it is laced with chilies and Szechuanese peppercorns. If you have never tried them they are a berry that makes your mouth tingle. It is intoxicating and mildly addictive and it will make you sweat. The white milky broth is made with pork and chicken bones and chicken fat (the Chinese love this kind of fat above others). To dip into your broths you order selection of meats, greens, tofu, mushrooms or fish. For the more adventurous you can also immerse yourself in the culture and order sea cucumber, pig’s brain, frozen tofu (weird texture) and a great variety of other dishes. Steve, my husband was not too keen on the pig’s brain idea since eating veal’s brain Spanish omelet in Granada, where my parents live, was not a culinary experience he relished.
The menu is quite long but does have the entries in English and pictures making it a much easier endeavor to choose your dishes. An infallible method of ordering in countries where your language skills are lacking is to look around at other tables and order things that look interesting. This has worked successfully for me many times and I have been known to do it even in Spain, my home country. This time the table next to us was savoring purple potato dumplings covered in tiny tapioca and served in a bamboo basket, the little girl in me had to order it even though it was totally out of synch with the rest of the order. Steve and I did joke about dipping them in the Szechuanese broth just to see the waiter’s face. They were sweet but the Chinese don’t mind mixing sweet and savory in one meal. The other table was having ice cream at the same time so we gave this a pass.
We ordered firm tofu, shrimp balls, thin slices of beef, a selection of mushrooms, leafy greens and delicious tofu skin noodles that soak the broth extremely well.
My friend Lyn, a bona fide foodie from Korea who has lived extensively in China explained to me what to order and how to eat since our first visits to hot pot always left us wondering if we were eating and ordering correctly.
- Dip the vegetables and tofu in the sesame sauce and the meats in soy sauce (just don’t dip everything in all the same sauce). Always order noodles and eat with the broth towards the end of the meal. The result is magical.
- Get an extra pair of chopsticks to handle raw meats and seafood so you don’t cross-contaminate when you eat.
- Order a variety of sauces to customize your own sauces. I love adding garlic to the sesame paste.
- Use the slotted ladle to “fish” the meat and fish out quickly unless you have superhuman chopsticks skills.
- Cook the meat in 20 seconds or less.
- Cook the vegetables in a couple of minutes or so.
Since I wanted to fit in, I ordered sprite or xuebi, which I saw on a very funny Chinese TV ad goes very well with spicy foods. Sprite is huge in China where it is the number one soft drink, with 26.9% market share, according to recent data from Nielsen.
This restaurant is not cheap. Invariably we pay around 350 Yuan for two people, which is a little expensive but I love the fact that it is a 4 story building with a massive turnover and a clean kitchen (they have a glass wall so you can peek in). Popularity is the key factor in my selection of restaurants since it means their food is fresh. If there are hundreds of people eating here everyday it must be quite good compared to its competitors.
Huang Cheng Lao Ma you will be seeing me again and maybe, maybe next time I will order the pig’s brain!