For a very, very, very large portion of my life, my exposure to Asian cuisine consisted entirely of crappy (and by crappy, I mean regretfully delicious) Chinese takeout and instant ramen. Sashimi was a strange and foreign concept. Dim sum sounded like a nickname for a cheap electric bill.
I can’t entirely blame my folks or my bland European heritage for this sheltering. The ‘burbs where I grew up were something of a diversity desert (read: painfully white). I can’t even recall a sushi joint anywhere nearby during my formative years, and sushi is the quintessential non-Chinese Asian gateway food for many Americans.
I can recall visiting friends who went to Berkeley in college, and dropping by one of the hole in the wall teriyaki places for lunch, only to find out that there was no silverware in sight. Never before had I felt so inept at the simple act of putting food to mouth than being forced, for the first time, to eat an entire meal with chopsticks.
A few years later, shortly out of college, I visited a friend who lived in Irvine and witnessed the magic of banh mi for the first time: Lee's Sandwiches. What was this magical pork on a baguette with these amazingly sweet and lightly pickled carrots and cilantro? And all for, like two fucking dollars?! It felt like we were ripping them off by eating their food.
Shortly thereafter, I met some friends for a drink at the restaurant where they had just finished a meal—a little hole in the wall pho joint. Though I'd never seen it before, I was immediately taken by this unassuming noodle soup with a beefy aroma carrying hints of mint and lime. It was something that might be considered exotic, and yet it was so immediately familiar and comforting.
I found myself asking why haven't I heard of any of this stuff before? What struck me was, not only how intoxicating and delicious these foods were, but how generally accessible they would be to American palettes. So why haven't we adopted these things on a broad scale? Why weren't they prominently featured in the pantheon of adopted classics alongside spagetti, kung pao chicken, enchiladas? I can't say I know the answer. Perhaps I should start a petition drive.
In my mid twenties, I was an early adopter of the practice that the millenials find so popular these days: I moved back home with my folks. And the times, they were a-changin’. An oasis began to coalesce in the middle of the great diversity desert. Suddenly, pho! Right down the street!
Before long, I found myself enjoying sushi, and discovering authentic ramen, and taking an interest in hot pot.
In spite of my expanded horizons, I have yet to have authentic hot pot, either Chinese or Japanese. But over the last few months, I’d been watching David Chang’s Mind of a Chef and sitting in bed, reading the Momofuku cookbook, becoming unwittingly interested in things like dashi.
And while the attention to the mundane details is something I admire about Japanese cooking, it can also be intimidating. That attention to detail requires skill and finesse and refinement. But, I suppose that’s where hotpot is a welcome gateway to Japanese cuisine. Gentle simmering of broth requires less finesse than, say, selecting and slicing the perfect piece of sashimi.
So I bought a hotpot, and here's what followed.
Hand-pulled noodle hot pot
It seems that the bible for home hot pot is Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat's Japanese Hot Pots. It definitely is a lovely introduction to the esoteric ingredients and the building of hot pot's component parts. It also compiles a wide variety of recipes, and I've test driven a few of them, all with excellent results.
But the one recipe that instantly jumped out was the hand-pulled noodle hot pot with a mushroom based broth. For me, the sales pitch will always begin and end with anything rustic noodle/dumpling/doughy goodness related.
The downside to this particular recipe, at least if you're like me and have never eaten this sort of thing prepared properly, is that there isn't a whole lot of direction for the noodle making, nor is there a detailed photo to give you an idea that you're on track. I'd say the noodles I made were a little too thick to be tasty and manageable, but for all I know that's how they are supposed to be?
For the stock
- 8 shitake mushrooms
- 5 cups water
For the dough
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup water
- 3 tablespoons sake
- 1 tablespoon mirin
- 2 tablespoons usukuchi soy sauce
- 1/2 tablespoon salt
- 2 6-inch pieces kombu
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced on an angle into 2-inch pieces
- 1/2 a head of napa cabbage, sliced
- 1 negi, sliced on an angle into 2-inch pieces
- 3 ounces of enoki mushrooms (about half a package)
To make the stock, combine the mushrooms and water in a container and allow to steep for at least five hours or overnight. (Note, the recipe in Japanese Hot Pots calls for dried shitakes, but I used fresh that would otherwise spoil if unused. I suspect that dried would be more rich and provide and extra hit of umami, but fresh worked out just fine too.)
To prepare the noodles, place the dough ingredients in a bowl and combine. Dust a work surface with flour and kneed the noodle dough 5 minutes until it's elastic. Return the dough ball to the bowl, covering with a damp towel. Allow it to rest for 1 hour.
When the dough is ready, fill saucepan with water and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Pull apart small pieces of dough with your fingers, coarsely forming 2-inch round flat noodles (mine were about a 1/4 inch thick, but I think thinner would be better). When the water boils, drop in the dough pieces and cook for 3 minutes. Strain and rinse under running water and set aside.
When stock is ready, strain stock through a fine mesh strainer. Remove and discard mushroom stems and cut tops into pieces, reserving them with the rest of the ingredients. To finish broth, combine stock with sake, mirin, soy, and salt in a bowl.
Place kombu strips in bottom of hot pot and pile other ingredients on top. Pour in broth, and cover pot, bringing it to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the noodles and simmer until noodles are tender, 5 to 10 minutes.
Ladle into small bowls and serve.