hotpot: a communal experience

A giant, bubbling pot of stew sits in the middle of a table. Colorful plates of sliced marble meat, leafy greens, fish balls, enoki mushrooms, daikon, and vermicelli are laid out. Several chopsticks fish for food within the boiling broth as friendly conversations and laughter fill the room. The food goes on a three-stop journey: it’s first cooked in the pot, then dipped in sauce, before finally reaching the mouth of a happy camper. This is how you eat Chinese hotpot, or huo guo, which literally means “fire pot.”

Image via Anatola Howard on Twitter

But what exactly is hotpot? Since virtually anything can be boiled in the soup, it’s more of a cooking method than it is a dish with specific ingredients. However, it’s best to view hotpot as an experience. It’s a communal activity where friends and family can talk, laugh, and enjoy delicious food at the same time. Hotpot, in essence, is what you make of it!

Given how big China is, it’s not a surprise that hotpot varies from region to region. Sichuan hotpot is notoriously spicy with its numbing Sichuan peppercorns and chilli flakes sprinkled in a red soup base. Don’t be embarrassed if your face is flushed and you’re sweating buckets while eating. Pro tip: have some cold ice tea or milk on hand! If you’re a seafood lover, Cantonese hotpot may be more up your alley: ingredients like shrimp, fish, or clams are cooked in a mild but refreshing seafood broth. 

Sichuan hotpot (Image by VCG Photo)

Another important element of hotpot is the dipping sauce. The options are wide-ranging and customizable to your palate. There’s sesame oil, peanut sauce, Shacha sauce (Chinese barbeque sauce), soy sauce… Additionally, you can toss in cilantro, garlic, scallions, crushed peanuts—you get the point. There are no rules in the game of hotpot!

Okay, I know I just said there aren’t any rules. But there are some guidelines you can follow to ensure the best hotpot experience.

  • Here are some classic ingredients if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the options: sliced lamb and beef, tofu skin, fish balls, luncheon meat, napa cabbage, spinach, vermicelli noodles, enoki mushrooms, and daikon radish (Still a lot of options…but variety is key!) 
  • Can’t seem to pick up the food with your chopsticks? Use a strainer scoop!
  • Cook the food gradually. Don’t try to put everything in the pot at once because meats, vegetables, and noodles have different cooking times.
  • Don’t eat it alone— Hotpot tastes better when eaten with friends and family.

Cultural Comparison: Many Asian countries have their own version of hotpot. In Japan, it’s called Shabu Shabu while Vietnamese hotpot is called lẩu. Have you tried any of these? Which one’s your favorite? 

– julie

noodles

a culinary sensation

Sometimes the simplest things in life provide the most versatility. A combination of flour and water brings us noodles, a popular multicultural dish enjoyed all over the globe. The origin of noodles is a contentious debate. Some say Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy after his voyage back from China. Others say that Roman poets have written verses about noodles dated back to twenty centuries ago.

In 2005, archeologists unearthed a 4000-year-old bowl of noodles buried ten feet underground in China, making this the oldest known evidence of noodles.

Picture from the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Regardless of which country invented noodles, it’s safe to say that anyone can enjoy this culinary sensation. 

noodles and chinese culture

Food has always been an important facet of Chinese culture. Noodles are an everyday staple in China but they’re also eaten during special occasions and festivals. I’m sure we’ve all celebrated our birthday with a huge slice of cake. In China, it’s just as common for the birthday girl or boy to eat a bowl of “longevity noodles.” Called chang shou mian (长寿面), its long strands bless the celebrant with a long life. The noodles must be carefully eaten though— it’s believed that cutting the strands with your teeth will cut your lifespan short as well! 

hand-pulled longevity noodles (image via China Daily)

Noodles reflect how wonderfully diverse our world is. Different cultures have their own variation of noodle dishes, whether that be Italian cacio e pepe, Vietnamese pho, Indian kheer, Japanese ramen, Egyptian koshari, Korean japchae, Peruvian tallarines verde—the list goes on! China alone has hundreds of regional noodle dishes. Sichuan Dan dan mian is coated with spicy chilli oil and topped with minced meat. The refreshing Shanxi liang pi or cold skin noodles are dressed with peanut sauce and garnished with sliced cucumbers. Hand-stretched Lanzhou beef noodles are served in a steaming bowl of tasty broth.

Sichuan dan dan mian (Image via Seonkyoung Longest)

If you get the chance to visit China, may I suggest noodles as your next meal?

– julie

zongzi and the dragon boat festival

Chinese tamale

You can think of Zongzi as the Chinese version of a Mexican tamale. Also called a sticky rice dumpling, Zongzi is glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. After being molded into a triangle or pyramid shape, the dumpling is boiled in water and the ingredients cook into a soft, sticky texture. In the north, the dumplings are often stuffed with sweet fillings like red beans and jujubes (Chinese dates) while Southern variations include savory fillings such as pork belly and shiitake mushrooms. You can enjoy it hot or cold, drizzled with honey or soy sauce, but remember—unwrap the leaves before digging in!

The Dragon Boat Festival

Zongzi is a classic food enjoyed during the Dragon Boat Festival, or duan wu jie (端午节). It’s celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month to commemorate famous Chinese poet Qu Yuan (476-221 BC). Qu Yuan served as the king’s minister in the State of Chu during the Warring States Period. He was beloved for his intelligence and loyalty, and these traits persisted even after the king banished him from his country. But without Qu Yuan’s advice, the State of Chu soon fell to the State of Qin. Overcome with grief in watching the demise of his country, the poet drowned himself in a river.

Legend says that when news of Qu Yuan’s death spread, mourning civilians rowed their boats to the river and dropped rice balls in the water, hoping the fish would feed on those instead to preserve Qu Yuan’s body. Since then, boat racing and eating Zongzi have become celebratory customs during the Dragon Boat Festival to honor the tragic, patriotic passing of Qu Yuan.

– julie 

tanghulu, candied hawthorn

Chinese “candied apples”

On the chilly, winter streets of Beijing, you spot an odd sight: Street vendors selling bright-red spheres stacked on long, wooden sticks. The smooth and glossy spectacle looks like a glass figurine! You find out it’s edible and as you bite into them, you’re alarmed to hear a loud crunch.

That’s the sound of eating Tanghulu, or candied fruit skewers. This Chinese snack is similar to candied apples in which fruits are coated with a sweet sugar syrup that harden into a shiny shell. Traditionally, hawthorn berries are used but other fruits like strawberries, kiwis, grapes, or mandarin oranges can be made into Tanghulu as well. The combination of tart fruit and sweet candy makes for a lovely treat to enjoy. 

The Story of Zao Jun

In ancient Chinese religion, people prayed to many gods and goddesses for good fortune. One of the most famous gods is Zao Jun ( 灶君), the Kitchen God. His job was to report to the Jade Emperor ruling over Heaven on the family’s behavior throughout the year. It’s like when your teacher handed out report cards to your parents back in middle school—a nerve-wracking experience if you happened to be failing geometry. (What? I would never.)

by Granger on Fine Art America

That’s why around Chinese New Year, families would offer Tanghulu to Zao Jun and hope the sugary snack will “sweeten” his words. Perhaps the Kitchen God can be bought off with candy but don’t try to bribe your teachers in this way.

– julie

tao zi, peaches

Peaches in Ancient China

Originating from China, Peaches or Tao zi were first cultivated by farmers around 4000 years ago. Emperors loved to feast on Taozi, so if peaches happen to be your favorite fruit, you have noble taste. In Chinese literature and art, peaches symbolize longevity and are portrayed as magical, divine fruits. One of poet Tao Qian’s most famous works is titled Peach Blossom Spring

All at once he came upon a grove of blossoming peach trees which lined either bank for hundreds of paces. No tree of any other kind stood amongst them, but there were fragrant flowers, delicate and lovely to the eye, and the air was filled with drifting peachbloom.

Tao Qian (translation via Columbia University)

Tao Qian wrote this poem during a period of instability and warfare. This essay describes the fateful discovery of an ethereal utopia where people lived in simplicity and harmony with each other as well as nature. Through this poem, peaches embody the yearning for a peaceful world, a consonance we haven’t fully achieved yet thousands of years later, it seems.

Peaches in Journey to the West

One figure in Chinese mythology that all Chinese children are bound to know is The Monkey King, or Sun Wukong from the 16th century novel “Journey to the West.” The story follows Wukong, a pig-faced demon, a fish spirit, and a Buddhist monk who journeys to India to retrieve sacred scrolls and attain enlightenment.

So, what fateful event led the Monkey King to embark on this journey? Peaches. Magical, divine peaches. The Queen Mother of the West throws an annual Peach Banquet in Heaven where prestigious guests are invited to feast on the Peaches of Immortality. Whoever eats these divine fruits are blessed with youth, wisdom, or the ability to fly. The rarest peachest can even give someone eternal life.

However, the mischievous Monkey King secretly eats all of the most powerful peaches and wreaks havoc in the heavenly courts with his new-found strength. It was Buddha himself who saves the party by banishing Wukong below a mountain for 500 years. Eventually, Wukong redeems himself through the long and difficult journey to India.

Sadly, peaches won’t give us superpowers like the Monkey King so we’ll have to confront the challenges of life as regular human beings. It’s alright, the fruit of hardwork is the sweetest!

– julie

the medium is the message: AOC’s met gala dress

Image via New York Times

I’m sure you’ve heard about AOC’s 2021 Met Gala Dress.

US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez donned a white gown with “Tax the Rich” cascading down her back in big, blood-red lettering. 

The medium is the message she posted on her Instagram. Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan first coined this phrase in the sixties, essentially prophesying the proliferation of social media and an interconnected society through digital means. 

I can’t stop thinking about this phrase. The medium is the message. It’s the idea that the method used to send and receive information is more important than the information itself. In our current digital age where the circulation of political issues and activism is enabled through social media, AOC’s bold political statement seems to be the correct means of transportation. It’s repostable. It’s pithy. It’s jarring. It’s blood stains on a pure, snow battleground. 

Frankly, I rolled my eyes upon first seeing pictures of her fashion statement. Must we bring politics to a costume party? Seems awfully tawdry. But it’s a fashion statement, one I would assume to have stirred up controversy among the right-leaning crowd. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, especially in this case. Succès de scandale, non?

Many of us consume bite-sized news about this event, wondering who the best-dressed, worst-dressed, the most scantily-clad, and whatnot celebrities are. In the elite, opulent stage of the Met Gala, AOC delivers a message knowing it would be highly publicized and exposed to media consumers from all ages and political beliefs. 

Some may say her gesture of performative activism will not produce far-reaching impacts. It’s not like the government will see “TTR” and decide on a tax policy reform for the top 0.01%. Although it won’t produce immediate impacts, Alice Cappelle asserts in her video “Why AOC’s Dress Matters,” that the representative’s actions are in fact transformative on a bigger, long-term scale.

Cappelle introduces the “Overton Window,” a model illustrating the range of political policies acceptable to the mainstream public at a given time. AOC is pulling this window of discourse towards left-wing, progressive ideals, and feeding the unthinkable into the minds of the masses, letting it stew in hopes that these values eventually become sensible, acceptable, and bear fruit into a policy. 

While AOC was amplifying her message to celebrities dressed in stones and haute couture being ushered by security guards, protestors right outside The Metropolitan Museum of Art were being handcuffed by the NYPD. They dream of a better America and they fight with their chants and signs. I imagine AOC unzipping her dress, shedding herself of the glitz and gold, buttoning her blazer, and whispering to the world that she’s going to fight alongside them.

mooncake and the chinese lunar goddess

medium: watercolor

Mooncakes, 月饼

One of the most beloved Chinese desserts is mooncake, or yuebing (月饼). Mooncakes are traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival on the lunar calendar’s eighth month.

Different regions have their own variations of this soft, decadent pastry with them boast a plethora of shapes, sizes, flavors, and fillings. The popular Cantonese-style mooncake dons a patterned, golden crust and envelopes a dense, lotus seed paste filling. A salted egg yolk often sits in the middle of the filling, reminiscent of a full moon in the sky. Hong Kong snow skin mooncake has a chewy, mochi skin filled with creamy custard. Five nuts mooncake pays tribute to its name by being stuffed with walnuts, pumpkin seeds, almonds, sesame seeds, and olive kernels. Savory Suzhou meat mooncake has a flaky crust filled with minced pork. The variations are truly endless, covering all spectrums of flavor notes and textural sensations.

The Legend of Chang’e (嫦娥)

One Mid-Autumn festival legend tells the story of Chang’e (嫦娥) and how she became the goddess of the moon. In ancient times, it is said that there were ten suns hanging in the sky, scorching the humans on earth, forcing their crops to wither away and wells to run dry. The husband of Chang’e, Hou Yi, was a skilled archer who shot down nine of the ten suns and returned harmony on Earth. For his good deed, the gods gave him an elixir of immortality that served as his gateway to heaven. But unwilling to separate from his beloved wife, Hou Yi stored the elixir away.

Hou Yi’s apprentice, Peng Meng, caught wind of this magic elixir. He yearned for eternal life and decided to steal this blessing for himself. Chang’e caught the greedy apprentice in his act and in frantic desperation to stop him, swallowed the pill. She floated up towards the sky and watched the world shrink beneath her dangling feet. 

In order to stay close to her husband, Chang’e chose to reside on the moon. Now, people pay tribute to the moon goddess by eating mooncakes and admiring the full moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Who knows, maybe you’ll spot Chang’e drifting around the gray planetary mass, looking longingly at the place she once called home. 

coffee shops and strangers

Hissing milk cuts through the humdrum buzz of a freezer. Syncopated footsteps tap to the crisp sound of grinding coffee. The baristas perform their number while I, sketchbook in hand, quietly spectate. Like an antiphony, I respond to this music with soft, graphite strokes. 

Soon, more performers file through the stage door, their clinking wallets and casual dialogue adding to the symphony of the room. I rough out their costumes, the v-neck of a scrub top or the embroidery of a college crewneck. In my back pocket sits an eraser that is seldom used. Why alter improvised scenes?

Bodies flurry through the door, faces frown at a laptop screen, eyes run across book pages, mirthful laughter escapes mouths between sips of coffee. Among the eclectic pool of strangers, I can find solace in my insignificance. I like feeling unseen. I’m afforded a glimpse of a stranger’s day, a moment of mundanity where I withhold judgement and simply observe. 

When fleeting interactions go as quickly as they come, observational drawing is a tool that helps me focus in the present moment. Each pencil stroke is an anchor grounding wandering thoughts, a reminder that dwelling on the past or worrying about the future is a fruitless endeavor. 

Each stranger on the page is a challenge against my need for perfection, whether the proportions are slightly wonky or the eyes don’t sit right. It seemed fitting for these quick sketches to be flawed— an ode to our imperfect existence.

In an off-kilter way, I feel at home in this community of strangers. Our lives intersect in a transient interlude, the catalyst being our shared love for this ambient atmosphere and a warm cup of java. At my local coffee shop, my humble role as just another obscure face in passing gives me a sense of solace and belonging.

– julie

rotini hair

A friend sends me a video of him spiking a volleyball and I tell him he’s so cool. His response of the smug emoticon with sunglasses is a testament to how uncool he actually is. In the lovely, casual manner all teenage tête-à-têtes have, our conversation contingently shifts to his hair. Curious, I ask what his hair care routine is. See, his sprouting curls resemble a bowl of rotini and there ought to be a refined ritual to keep the head of pasta in al dente condition. 

To my dismay, he says he doesn’t have one. He mentions how when he aimed for straight hair, he followed a tedious hair care routine. But now his all natural approach allowing his curls to see the light of day and spares him of extra upkeep. I think of the hours I spent burning curls into my hair with a hot, iron rod because people with straight hair inevitably want curly locks, and curly-haired individuals stare wistfully at straight hair. Quoting from Murphy’s Tenth Law, “mother nature is a bitch.”

Sometimes when I come to a revelation, I like to divulge my secret anecdotes about life to the person who inspired the thought. I tell him how deep his previous remark is because it shows us that once we stop our relentless pursuit for what we don’t have, only then will we truly feel contentment and gratitude for all we’ve been given. He sends another sunglasses emoji in response, so I toss the phone aside and continue on with my day.

– julie

the grandmother i never met

Embroidered binding shoes, Image via eyeofsam

Four bowls of steaming white rice and colorful plates of Chinese home dishes crowded the kitchen table. As per usual, my dad’s sonorous voice expressed his opinions on trifling matters, addressing no one in particular while our chopsticks clinked as the bass beat. I like to joke that you could sit my dad in a room alone and he’ll strike up a jolly conversation with the wall. 

My parents like to reminisce about their childhood over dinner, the famous “back in the days” stories. They would lament over the harsh lifestyle in rural China, how rations of meat were so tiny and fresh fruit was akin to candy. I would listen as I helped myself to the gleaming plate of Kung Pao chicken or twice-cooked pork belly in front of me, trying my best to sympathize. 

When two hard-working immigrant parents built a comfortable living for me, I grapple with how to approach my privilege. What if my formative struggles were one of weight and acne, and not of having enough food on the table?

Over dinner, I typically absorb myself with musings of my own while the background noise of sentence segments played like a broken record: S&P 500…you should major in accounting…America gives free money to lazy people… in Dream of the Red Chamber…Elon Musk…

On this particular meal, my dad settled on the topic of his birth mother. She passed away in her forties, so I never called her grandma in person. He told us how my grandmother refused to undergo the age-old tradition of foot-binding. The process sounded absurd and inhumane. They would crush your bones to mold you into a symbol of status and beauty. A young girl’s dainty steps proved she didn’t labor in the fields and had servants to tend to her needs. 

Maybe like me, my grandma’s formative struggles did include beauty standards, the difference being that she fiercely opposed them while I, though not wanting to maim my toes, furiously chased after my perfect ideal of Eurocentric features.

“They wouldn’t let her go to school but she forced her way in anyways,” continued my dad.

I asked him if girls in that period weren’t allowed an education.

“Families were too poor to send the girls. She insisted, though,” my dad said with a mouthful of rice. He had a habit of talking too much and too loud with food in his mouth and I’ve contemplated whether to learn the Heimlich Maneuver. 

Just a day earlier, I complained about despising school and AP exams. I felt a slight twinge of guilt as I mulled over the stories of my grandmother. 

Academic stress is surely unfavorable but I realized it’s a struggle I’m privileged to have. I don’t have to fight for an education because my family cannot afford to send the daughters to school after they’ve already sent the sons. As for my quiet but ongoing pursuit of feminine beauty ideals, maybe I should see it for what it is— a trend that will go out of style. Foot-binding is surely a relic of the past.

– julie