Happy Chinese Lunar New Year - Share a Vegetarian Hotpot!

Editor's note: This post comes from Weiling Fu, our lead web designer at GRACE. Weiling is originally from Taiwan and now lives in Brooklyn, where she hosts a great annual New Year's party. This year, however, she's in Taiwan, celebrating with her family, so we are especially glad to share her post and recipes.

Gong Xi Fa Zai! This zodiac year will be the year of Monkey. The Year of the Monkey starts February 8, 2016 (the Lunar New Year) and lasts to January 27, 2017. There are a series of cultural activities welcoming the Lunar New Year beginning aound ten days prior.

Many of these celebratory events are tied to cooking, eating and the social gatherings of family, friends and business associates. It starts with the ceremony of "Song Shen" (送神), the sending off of the Stove God back to heaven. After sending off Song Shen, and many other family ghosts of various significance, back to heaven, the family commences a thorough cleaning of the house and, most importantly, the household's family ancestral altar called "Ching Chen" (清塵). This cleansing of both the visible and invisible of one's environment symbolically begins the new year with a clean slate, devoid of any of the previous years leftover detritus.

Though each region and community may have their own unique twist on the Lunar New Year festivities, they all have one thing in common: the importance of food. The various styles, flavors, ingredients, even colors and textures, all play important symbolic roles in the ringing in of good fortune, luck, longevity and happiness for the New Year. Foods such as the New Year Rice Cakes (年糕) are prepared and consumed because the pronunciation of rice cake in Mandarin sounds similar to the phrase: yearly progress. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are used similarly. The pronounciation of spinach sounds like expansion. The sound of the word pineapple brings to mind "burning strong." Shape is important as well. Long noodles equal longevity of life. The circular round shape of the sesame ball dessert represents centerdness and balance, and its sweet flavor is believed to bring a sweetness to the New Year. Its red color is symbolic too, red being the color of good luck in Chinese culture; obviously it is meant to bring good luck.

Gong Xi Fa Zai (恭禧發財), Xin Nian Quai Le (新年快樂), Happy New Year!

The Lunar New Year's Eve dinner is the equivalent of Christmas's eve dinner. Called "Wei Lu," (圍爐) it is a family reunion. Everyone makes a great effort to return home for the feast and related festivities. The most common dining style for this traditional meal is the Hotpot, or Firepot (火鍋). The hotpot is a simmering metal pot of stock at the center of the dining table which is kept at a constant simmer. Ingredients, mostly raw, are prepared and cooked in the simmering pot by all at the table, similar to what western cultures know as fondue. The typical hotpot ingredients include: thinly sliced meats, (pork, beef, lamb, etc.), seafood, many local seasonal vegetables, mushrooms, wontons, egg dumplings and fish paste balls. These ingredients will vary from region to region, however, each of the ingredients of the Wei Lu dinner has its special auspicious symbolic significance. As mentioned previously, long noodles symbolize longevity. They should not be cut into shorter sections before serving. The roundness of the fish balls, meatballs and shrimp balls imply reunion, bringing things full circle. Leeks and white radishes (daikon) signify lasting good fortune and the serving of a dish of a whole fish indicates abundance for the new year. Pineapple is served in Taiwan because it sounds like prosperity.

In our house, a vegetable-based broth is prepared on the stove, then transfered to the hotpot which is set in the center of the table surrounded by a layout of all the ready to cook ingredients. Separate plates are used for each of the ingredients, but if space is an issue it is practical to categorize similar ingredients on specific plates, such as meats like fatty beef and lamb on one plate, seafood items like fish balls and fish cakes on another, vegetables together, etc. Once the host, or family elder begins dropping items in the hotpot the feast has begun! Everyone helps themselves to the morsels that they most desire, dropping them into the simmering broth and removing them once cooked to taste. We prepare dipping sauces that add the perfect final touch.

The hotpot's most significant purpose is to bring family, friends and acquaintances together around the table to enjoy the cooking process and the eating of the delicious meal. Despite the communal aspect of the cooking process, one can personalize their cooking to suit their own tastes by choosing their favorite of the many ingredients, and by mixing and matching diffent ingredients to fit their taste. Eating as a family or large group is a big part of Chinese culture and certain traditions of etiquette apply. Showing good Chinese table manners is thought to bring luck, while breaking certain taboo rules reflects poorly on one's parents, who should have taught them better. The chair facing the entrance, or east, is reserved for the family elder, or the person of highest status, or on occasion a special guest of honor. This person of honor is to be the first to lift their chop sticks, while all others wait out of respect.

After the hotpot, rice cakes and pineapple are served, my favorite. This begins the joyful time of giving out red envelopes of lucky money, called tao hongbao (討 ; 紅 ; 包). These red envelopes are usually given out by married couples to single people of the younger generation and especially to children. The amount of money in the envelope usually ends in an even denomination; odd-numbers are traditionally associated with funerals. This is the happiest day of the year for children. Not only do they receive their lucky red envelopes, but they are also allowed stay up all night. In my family, whenever the little ones do finally go to bed, the unopened red envelopes are placed under their pillows to ensure good dreams, and are opened in private when they awake for the first time in the new year.

Recipe for Vegetarian Hotpot 素食火鍋 

Ingredients for broth base:

Non-Spicy

  • 1 large carrot, halved lengthwise and chopped into 1-2 inch pieces
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 1 tablespoon of dried goji berries
  • 1 cup each of cabbage, pumpkin, daikon and seaweed
  • 4 to 5 black Chinese mushrooms

Spicy (optional but highly recommended)

Non-Spicy vegetable broth ingredients (above), plus:

  • 12 teaspoon peanut oil or sesame oil
  • 4 tablespoons of chili peppers
  • 1 tablespoon of Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of chili black bean sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of chili paste
  • 1 tablespoon of star anise
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 1 teaspoon peeled and grated fresh ginger
  • 4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce

Preparation

Non Spicy Broth:

Rinse and clean all vegetables: bok choy, cabbage, pumpkin, daikon, mushrooms and seaweed. If you have dried seaweed, soak in cool water for 10 mins before cooking. Chop all vegetables into 2 to 3 inch pieces.  

Bring 6 to 8 cups of water to a boil, add the bok choy, cabbage, pumpkin, daikon and seaweed. Bring the heat to medium to low for 10 mins. Transfer the broth and vegetables to the hotpot, about 3 quarters full.

Sichuan Spicy Broth (麻辣火鍋):

This is a mouth-tingling, numbing spicy hotpot; all ingredients are cooked in a very spicy herb broth!

Heat wok (any large cooker will work) over high heat, and add the peanut oil or sesame oil. Stir-fry the chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns until fragrant. Add the chili black bean sauce and chile paste, garlic, red pepper flakes and ginger. Stir for 3 minutes, then pour in the non-spicy vegetable broth. Add the star anise and bring everything to a boil. Then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes. Transfer the spicy broth to the hotpot, about 3 quarters full.

The Dipping Sauce:

All items are optional suggestions and can be used in any combination of one or more according to personal taste.

  • black vinegar
  • soy sauce
  • ginger
  • minced garlic
  • chili pepper flakes or Chili Powder
  • black bean sauce
  • scallions, chopped fine
  • cilantro, chopped fine
  • satay sauce
  • coriander

Serve each ingredient in its own dishes and set the it aside. Let each guest prepare their own dipping sauce at the table. In a small bowl, stir to combine their favorite ingredients.

For the Table Fixings:

Ingredients:

  • Greens,  such as spinach, snow pea leaves, lettuce (iceberg, red or green) and chrysanthemum greens (tong ho). These greens are best left whole or in big pieces, and usually cook in just 2 to 3 minutes or less. Greens, such as Napa cabbage, and baby bok choy are thicker stemmed and take a few minutes longer to cook. Cut them in half and cook them for about 4 to 5 minutes.
  • Root vegetables, like daikon, carrots and taro, should be cut into 2-inch chunks about 1/8 inch thick. One of the benefits of cutting root vegetables into large chunks is they can be left to simmer in the broth and flavor it.
  • Mushrooms, including button mushrooms, portobello, shiitake, maitake (hen-of-woods), enoki and shimeiji. Large mushrooms such as portobello and shiitakes should be stemmed and cut in half, and usually take about 3 to 4 minutes to cook. Mushrooms with thin, edible stems, like shimeiji, should be separated into small bundles and take 1 to 3 minutes to cook. Enoki mushrooms are ready as soon as they start to wilt, which takes about 30 seconds.
  • Tofu, including regular or firm tofu, tofu puffs, pressed tofu or bean curd sticks. Since tofu is already cooked, you're basically warming it up in the hotpot. I like to cut regular and firm tofu into cubes; slice firm and pressed tofu 1/4 inch thick; and cut tofu puffs in half. Soak dried bean curd sticks in water overnight or at least 3 hours before cooking, then cut them into 2- to 4-inch long pieces. If you want to get really DIY, you can make your own tofu.
  • Corn, just like daikon and carrots, can be used to flavor the broth. Slice the cob of corn into 2- to 3-inch segments and let it simmer.
  • Fish balls and fish cakes  you can find in the freezer section of any well-stocked Asian supermarket. You can find vegetarian  balls in all shapes, sizes and flavors. One of the most popular fish balls for hotpot are usually white or golden brown. Since fish balls are already cooked when you buy them, they don't take long to reheat. There's no need to defrost them first; just drop them in the broth and when they float to the surface, they are ready to eat.
  • Noodles  can be served alongside the hotpot as a side dish, or simply use the broth to cook the noodles at the end of the meal. The noodles will be infused with the flavors of all of the ingredients that everyone has cooked in it.

Setting the Table and Hotpot Etiquette

Using separate plates for each of your ingredients looks pretty; however, if space is an issue this may not be practical. One can categorize the ingredients: meats like fatty beef and lamb on a dish, seafood items like fish balls and fish cakes on another. There is no rule about putting it all on one large platter, but remember this is a celebration, so make a display of it. At the center of the table where all guests have access, place the hotpot on an electric heating plate so that the broth can continue to simmer.

Each personal has a set of chopsticks, a plate and a small bowl for dipping sauce. Make sure you have extra pair of communal chopsticks and hotpot scoop for adding and removing ingredients into and from the hotpot - this reduces the chance of cross contamination from the raw ingredients and serving plates.

Once an ingredient is cooked to taste, transfer it to your own dish and dip into your dipping sauce. Eating a Chinese hotpot is a very communal experience. People gather around the pot, dipping their food, waiting for it to cook, talking and laughing, mixing their own sauces and enjoying each other's company. These meals commonly last a couple of hours because you are cooking and eating in small portions at the same time, it is the the grandest of holidays, and there is no hurry.

Gong Xi Fa Zai (恭禧發財), Xin Nian Quai Le (新年快樂), Happy New Year!


This post was originally published in February 2015.