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Chinese takeout staples such as lo mein, egg rolls, and sesame chicken are easy weeknight favorites, but many more traditional Chinese foods are growing in popularity in the States such as soup dumplings, hot pot, and steamed whole fish. But even if you’re ready to take your Chinese palate to the next level, it can be intimidating to approach these specialties. But thanks to the help of three local Chinese restaurateurs, we’ve developed step-by-step eating guides to help you sip, slurp, and snarf down these dishes with confidence.
How to Eat Hot Pot
In its purest form, hot pot simply refers to the practice of boiling various meats, seafood, vegetables, and noodles in a flavored broth; it’s a practice that likely originated from China by the Mongol Empire. At Bronze Empire, the popular University Park spot, customers have individual hot pots but traditionally customers sit around a pot on either an induction burner or electric range burner in the middle of the table. Diners control the heat of the burner, what food items to add, and the cadence at which to cook them. Hot pot is traditionally for groups of friends to hang out and catch up over a long period of time, so hot pots should be a marathon (with breaks), not a sprint. As Juneau Wong, marketing director for Bronze Empire, jokingly says, “The moment the lid is lifted off the pot, your friends are no longer your friends. They are enemies trying to steal all of your food.” General manager Kay Huang recommends following these steps to optimize your hot pot experience.
- Order your soup base. At Bronze Empire, the most popular option is the spicy pot—pork bone broth spiced with chile peppers, broad bean peas, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, and star anise.
- Choose your food items. The most popular are sliced beef and lamb, imitation crab meat, tong ho (also known as crown daisy or chrysanthemum greens), instant ramen, fish balls and fish tofu, peeled shrimp, fried tofu skin, and Enoki mushrooms. “Sliced beef and lamb are what people start with because most [customers] arrive at the restaurant starving, and those meats only take 10 seconds to cook if the broth is boiling,” Wong says. Don’t be afraid to try some traditional Chinese favorites including duck blood, black wood ear mushroom, or pig kidney.
- Make your own dipping sauce combo. There’s typically a self-serve mix-and-match sauce station with popular options being garlic-sesame, miso, chile-garlic, and creamy peanut sauces. At Bronze Empire, the most popular option is the Northern-style sauce consisting of sesame paste, shacha sauce (a southern Chinese condiment made with dried seafood), peanut butter, garlic, green onions, cilantro, fried onions, and chiles. Feel free to mix-and-match from all the options.
- Cook your food items by dipping them into the boiling soup. Pay close attention and watch for meat and seafood to ensure they lose their red, raw color and for vegetables to simmer to your desired tenderness level. Take the ingredients out of the broth, dip them into sauce, and eat them fresh and hot.
- Throw in noodles or rice. Many hot pot restaurants will top up your broth as it evaporates, but you can also use noodles and rice to soak up the remaining broth to make a tasty noodle soup or porridge, respectively.
How to Eat Soup Dumplings
In 2013, Tanya Baros founded Yellow Mountain Tea House in Colorado Springs after missing the high-quality loose-leaf tea she’d drink in her hometown of Guilin in southern China. The establishment is steeped in tradition (Baros spent six months in Shanghai working at tea houses to learn the craft of brewing), but don’t think it’s just a beverage joint. Xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings, are the most popular item on Yellow Mountain’s food menu. Each parcel’s thin wrapper contains a spoonful of unctuous savory soup and a ground pork filling flavored with soy sauce, ginger, and Chinese cooking wine. The key to getting the soup in the dumpling is mixing aspic—a clear, fatty jelly which Baros prepares by simmering beef bones in water—into the filling. Steaming the xiaolongbao melts the aspic into a flavorful broth, but it’s all too easy to burn your tongue on the hot liquid when it’s encased in dough. Here are Baros’ recommendations on how to eat soup dumplings safely.
- Carefully grab the soup dumpling. Xiaolongbao typically come six to an order, arranged inside a bamboo steamer with an accompanying soy-sauce-vinegar dipping sauce. Lift the steamer basket lid and use your chopsticks or accompanying tongs to lift the dumpling at its knotted top and transport it to a soup spoon. Take care not to rip the delicate dumpling skin mid-transport and spill the soup.
- Poke a hole and drain out the soup. This is the most important step to keep yourself from burning yourself on the hot (but delicious soup) contained inside the dumpling. (If you’re at Yellow Mountain you can skip this step as they put individual dumplings into tea cups and poke the hole for you to stop patrons from accidentally burning themselves.)
- Sip the soup. Blow on the soup to cool before sipping.
- Pour the dipping sauce. You’ll want to taste the soup unadulterated—but after you’ve drank the soup, feel free to pour the dipping sauce onto the dumpling still sitting in your soup spoon. Many restaurants will also provide slivers of fresh, raw ginger as a topping for your dumplings.
- Gulp down your dumpling. The last step is to enjoy your dumpling.
How to Eat Whole Fish
“It’s quite impressive to have a whole fish with a head and tail attached,” says Tommy Lee. Lee, who owns Uncle Ramen in Wash Park and Highland and recently reopened Hop Alley in RiNo after a short hiatus to expand the restaurant, says that almost every time his parents take him out to eat, they order a whole fish. Some restaurants will even have fish tanks inside for patrons to choose the fish they want. In Colorado, the whole fish you will most likely see on Chinese menus is striped bass, and the typical preparation is to steam it or any other white, flaky fish with soy sauce, hot oil, and aromatics (such as scallions and ginger).
“It’s not just in Chinese culture, but in most European cultures, [that] seeing a whole intact fish represents the thought that it’s the freshest and it has been touched by the least amount of hands,” explains Lee. “The fish are between $18 and $20 a pound…and a three-pound fish [is] good for six to eight people to have as a part of a meal.” Hop Alley serves many variations of whole fish, often partially butchering it to remove the finicky bones. Regardless, Lee recommends this approach to tackling the fish, head and all.
- Pick off the top filet. Most restaurants will serve the fish on its side and provide two large spoons. Move any garnishes to the side and then “go along the spine with the spoon and pick off the top filet,” Lee explains. Move the filet to either an empty plate or to the side of the serving dish.
- Take off the spine. Grasp the spine by the tail and it should easily lift off the bottom filet in one motion, leaving just the meat on the plate. If the spine is sticking to the meat, use one of your spoons to tug the filet down as you tug upwards on the spine.
- Beware of smaller bones. Arrange the two filets on the platter and allow the table to take a chunk of the meat. Be careful, though! Depending on the variety of fish, there still might be smaller bones in the meat so exercise caution when eating. If you’re having trouble, most servers will filet the fish for you.
- Dish out the fish. Place the fish on top of rice and spoon over the sauce and aromatics to enjoy.
- Don’t ignore the head. ”I have relatives that like to eat the eyeballs because it’s for good luck,” Lee says. “[Also] I think the fish cheeks are great especially if it’s a bigger fish.” To extract the fish cheeks, locate the pocket of meat in front of the gills and below the eyes.