Food & Culture

My winter without hotpot

Lockdown has paused many of life’s simple pleasures. But for one GT writer, the erasure of a family dinner ritual is the cruellest transgression of all.

By Yvonne C Lam
Shabu shabu, as declared in Lost In Translation, is a scam. "That was the worst lunch," intones Scarlett Johansson's character. "So bad," deadpans a berobed Bill Murray. "What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?". Lost as the movie was in its 2000s-era quagmire of quirk, it also misfires at a culinary level. Because take aim at shabu shabu, or other dishes of the hotpot oeuvre, and you do so at your own peril.
Hotpot is a shape-shifter across the Asian continent: Vietnam's lẩu, Thailand's suki, Korea's jeongol, the great many regional variations of huoguo across China. At its core though is a communal pot of bubbling broth set over a gas stove at the table, where diners dunk and plunge a coterie of raw ingredients – sliced seafood, meatballs, tofu, leafy greens, noodles – before fishing out their choice items. Dip, eat, repeat; the broth, ingeniously, becomes darker, richer and more complex as the meal progresses.
Hotpot is a winter ritual in my family, and I'm its pro-bono spokesperson. The days leading to Saturday night dinners at my parents' house sees activity on the family Whatsapp chat spike, as stakeholders take the mic to answer the great question: "What should we have for dinner?" (As is the case with domestic households, women bear the brunt of the unpaid labour so the question really asks, "What should we make Mum cook for eight hungry people?")
As a rule, I wait for the first of June to pounce. "Hotpot?" It ends with a question mark; a grammatical formality, as I mean it as a statement. A battlecry, even. "We will hotpot."
There are ground rules to hotpot night. All family members must be free and available. (Mum will not tolerate hotpot for a pithy table of four.) If partners are free, even better. (More guests equals a wider, more exciting variety of ingredients.)
Dad is on hardware duty. He somehow unearths not one, but two portable stoves from the deep recesses of the garage, plus a case of six butane-gas cylinders. Mum spends Saturday shuffling from shop to shop along Campsie's Beamish Street, poking, prodding and picking only the best produce before heading home and slicing the beef razor-thin, diligently deveining the banana prawns, washing the chrysanthemum leaves, and laying the lot on square Maxwell & Williams platters (bought on sale, $11.95). She'll add a sprig of coriander if she's feeling fancy.
And then – the magic. The flick of a switch, the blast of blue fire, the baptism of the first scallop in broth. We agree on the strategic order in which the ingredients will enter the cauldron: chicken takes the longest, so it goes first, leafy greens cook fastest, they go in last. Bottles of hoisin sauce and Lao Gan Ma are lined up like soldiers, waiting to be dispensed into bowls for dipping. The swirling steam rises into savoury-scented plumes that tumble beneath the ceiling lights; our cheeks are red, ruddy and flushed with pleasure and warmth, shields against the winter wind rattling outside.
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The first Lam family hotpot of 2021 was scheduled for Saturday 26 June. That afternoon at 2pm, a state government press conference announcing the Greater Sydney lockdown crushed our best-laid plans.
Since then, Saturday dinners have been replaced with – what else? – Zoom, the sole winner of COVID. They look a little different to last year's lockdown. Food drop-offs are no longer as my parents live in a "local government area of concern," though they've since acquired a laptop microphone which brings an audio clarity to their anecdotes about the status of the backyard succulents (Mum) and newly built shelves (Dad). My younger sister, who lives at home, convinces them to order takeaway on Saturday nights and Mum – usually reticent to eat, let alone pay, for food not cooked by her own hands – is happy to oblige in this pandemic-induced novelty.
During one desperate moment in August, I turned to my husband and insisted we do a hotpot for two. We could stand around the kitchen stove, our heads scraping the rangehood! He drew his eyes from that morning's televised press conference. "That's the saddest thing I've ever heard," he said, before turning his head – which sported a freshly carved DIY haircut – back to the television. I was wearing a mustard-coloured two-piece fleece set from Big W. He was mid-Sudoku. It was our winter of discontent.
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According to the five stages of grief, that episode would be filed under "bargaining". Because with September comes the curtain-call to grief, acceptance. Acceptance that winter hotpot season is well and truly over. Acceptance that quadruple-digit COVID case numbers in NSW are the rule, not the exception. Gratitude that my immediate family have received their first dose of vaccine. And recognition that during spring, hot communal pots of soup may not be the favoured meal of choice, but that with every warming day, we edge closer to the end of lockdown, and a shared meal around a table with loved ones.
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