Every year, my family has hotpot at my Uncle George and Aunt Shirley’s house. Hotpot, also known as shabu-shabu, is an easy dinner to put together once you get all the ingredients. And yet New Year’s at the Tang household has a special aura about it because of a couple key details.
1. Let the balls drop. This year, we had one loosely-packed mild fish ball, a dense fishy fish ball, starchy fishballs dotted with peas and dredged in eggs, and fish squares with the bite of firm tofu. We even had chicken balls, which are not meatballs, but airy puffs leavened with baking soda. I love them all.
2. Explore the textures of tofu. To whet our appetite, we had soy sauce pressed tofu with sliced celery. The deep-fried tofu is eaten early in the meal and acts as a sponge for the potent sauce you’ve mixed for yourself. The tofu skin is rolled and puckered, and cradles the sauce like pasta. Finally, the silken tofu comes at the end, when you add it to your sauce (which is now more like a soup), and spoon it up.
3. Include marinated meats. Hotpot is fun, but let’s be honest, poaching is not the most flavorful way of cooking your meat. This year, we had char siu (barbeque pork), salted chicken, and chicken feet!
4. Know when to rest your stomach. The pacing can be grueling. Just when you stuff yourself with beef, the shrimp comes out. When you’ve finally had your last pork dumpling with omelet skin, the taro comes calling. Feel free to step away from the action, but do so at the risk of sacrificing your honor.
5. Go for what you like.
5. Go for what you like.Chris only eats char siu and beef, then sits out the rest. At our dinner, it is not offensive to watch Nickolodeon while the rest of us eat. More food for us!
6. Buy the expensive chrysanthemum leaves. This will not go unnoticed by your guests, especially if you tell everyone how expensive they were three times. The spinach and Napa cabbage will get the short shrift, but not everyone can be chrysanthemum.
7. Eat a Chinese dessert with universal New Year’s good tidings. Italians eat lentils. Southerners eat black-eyed peas. Chinese people eat red bean soup with peanuts. The beans mean riches and the nuts mean “many seeds” in the new year. Put your extra taro in here so the luck sticks to your ribs.
8. But also go multi-culti. To be truly Tang-style, desserts should flirt with the Malagasy-Chinese spectrum. We had pounded sweet rice caked in crackly egg (nian gao) and cassava cake — grainy, seared, sliced like french fries. Fudgy chocolate souffle cake brought it home with a little bit of Franco-American indulgence.
8 of course is a good luck number, so I’ll end there. Happy New Year everyone!
(and to people who saw my dilemma on Twitter — I ended up seeing the Merce Cunningham show. Moved dinner up and took the train back to NYC. It was extraordinary!)