Hot Pot Time Machine

It had been almost three months since we last convened and in the midst of deadlines, I never reported on the dinner. The place was called Minni's Shabu-Shabu in Flushing, Queens and though my memory of that night has blurred somewhat over the past few months, I do remember that it was very cold and the steaming hot pots offered at Minni's were a relief.

My dining companion, Eugene, going on the advice of a friend, had chosen the brightly lit restaurant where each table had a built-in hot pot filled with broth. The pot had an on-off switch, with a temperature control, and each of us was given a platter of raw vegetables, two raw eggs, some starchy provisions we could not immediately identify, and rice noodles. Apparently, it was up to us to cook the food, but the combination of technical savvy and culinary knowledge of what goes into a shabu-shabu (the meal created with the hot pots) was over our heads.

The waiter, who was busy buzzing between tables in the crowded restaurant, quickly helped us get started — we had to order either meat or fish, to be cooked in the broth along with the accompanying vegetables and noodles. The menu offerings were plentiful — lamb, pork, beef, clams, lobster, squid, and tripe — making the decision at hand even more confusing. I kept it simple by ordering beef, but the waiter mistakenly thought I wanted the tripe and beef, so along with thinly sliced raw round steak, I had a honeycomb of tripe, which I quickly donated to my friend's enormous platter of uncooked shellfish and vegetables.

After dousing the beef into the boiling broth, the red meat immediately turned a sallow gray and tasted as lifeless as it looked. Maybe adding a few of the vegetables would help? I threw some cabbage and the eggs in the broth and then wandered to a buffet where a variety of sauces were available — hot chili sauce, soy, sweet barbecue, a green, coriander sauce, red tofu, and countless others. Without any guidance, I began adding a little of all of them. The result was more flavor, but minus any distinction.

Most of us were undeniably clueless about the art of making shabu-shabu, with the notable exception of Mike from Yonkers, who was deliberately adding ingredients — slowly layering his soup with flavors. Whether it was an act, or something he had a natural knack for, we will never know. So, though most of my broth had evaporated, and the ingredients were already devoured, I mimicked Mike from Yonkers' technique, and, surprisingly, the last remnants of the soup was developed into a hearty and flavorful meal. Next time I visit a shabu-shabu restaurant, I'll be better prepared though, in all honesty, that next time won't be soon.