"Depends," I replied and looking up from packing up my study material, I eyed at my Chinese teacher suspiciously, wondering what she was trying to get me to agree to. More character writing practice? Maybe some tone practice torture? Everything is possible with my teacher, except of course her offering me Wang Leehom on a silver platter...but hey a girl can dream!
"Can you keep both the 15th (my Hong Kong style Dim Sum experience in the heart of Dublin) and 21st January free for me?" She asked with a smile and I nodded with a grin.
"Sure, I can. What's the occasion for the 21st?"
"Hotpot, we're celebrating the Chinese New Year,"
"好啦，太棒了!" (Hǎola, tàibàngle! | OK, sounds great.)
Little did I know what I had just agreed to with my flippant Chinese response. Sure, I'd heard of Hotpot before and had a vague idea of what to expect, sort of: Dump food in a pot, boil, try and eat, get frustrated at the nuisance known to mankind as chopsticks. Well, I couldn't have been more wrong...what I had in mind was nowhere close to what I was presented with on the night, but let me tell this tale from the beginning.
In a nutshell, Hotpot (火锅 / huǒguō) really is just how I described it above, minus the bit about getting frustrated at having to use chopsticks (I'm exaggerating, I can handle them if I put my mind to it!) however @SteveWBT from You're Not From Around Here does a much better job at explaining than I do, so head over there and read.
In case you aren't all that familiar with Chinese culture, I'll explain why I was freaking out over having been told that I have to wear something red for the party. In China, the colour red has a special meaning. It is the colour of fire and is associated with good luck, fortune, joy and happiness. As such it is a fitting colour for a party designed to ring in the New Year (Chinese New Year's Eve was actually the 22nd of January with the 23rd of January being the first day of the new year but Sunday really isn't that great a day for a party).
I will admit that I freaked out over nothing. A short trip to my favourite clothes' shop had me all set in terms of what to wear. I also threw all my good resolutions into the wind and took a relaxing one and a half hours to get ready. Don't look at me like that, it was fun! Besides on weekends you get to take your time for everything so shoo!
Upon meeting up with my teacher, I finally found out that I'd been very wrong with my assumption about the size of the party...there were more than twenty of us. Prior to the guests arriving, I spent about half an hour on all fours - get your filthy minds out of the gutter, I was scrubbing the floor. What do you mean by your Chinese teacher never asked you to do that? What kind of teacher do you have? This is totally common practice! Clearly you know nothing about China or Chinese traditions.
Really. What are you chuckling into your tea cup for? I'm serious. It's a Chinese tradition to spring clean the house in the days leading up to the New Year. It is believed that through this you sweep out the bad luck of the year gone by and ready the house for an avalanche of good luck and fortune that the New Year will undoubtedly bring along. So yeah, take that, I had a very good reason for crawling around on the flour on all fours, scrubbing and sweeping like a world champion.
With the house spring-cleaned and decorated my teacher and I set about preparing the food with the help of one of my teacher's friends who had also arrived early. We had a fabulous DJ to entertain us while we transformed the kitchen into a cosy Chinese only (plus one 小中国人 -xiǎo zhōngguó rén- as my dad calls me) zone. It was filled with delicious scents, snacks and a weird mix of Cantonese, Mandarin and English chatter and much (!!!) laughter. Pre-parties rock!
When my teacher started to take all the food out of the freezer, the fridge and various cupboards, I nearly got a heart attack. What you can see on the photo collage a few paragraphs up isn't even half of the food that was there. I can't even begin to name it all for...you'd still be trying to finish reading this blog post two days from now. We had all sorts of meat, dumplings, fresh vegetables, noodles, fish (fresh shrimp and mussels). It was mouth watering just thinking about trying all the different dishes. My teacher bought strictly Chinese dishes only, there was nothing even remotely familiar about the food except that it looked edible and once the Hotpot sauces/soups (we made two different Hotpots, one mild and one spicy one) were happily simmering away in their pots and people slowly started to add food the entire house smelled fantastic.
At this point, I would like to take the opportunity to let you know that unpacking some 300+ frozen chicken, fish, meat and tofu balls is a nuisance I never ever want to be subjected again. Dumping the packages in boiling water only took the edge off. My hands were so red and my fingers so numb, I really thought I'd end up with frost bites or worse. If I had to choose, I'd definitely pick scrubbing floors:
Don't look at me like that, cleaning floors is fun! I totally blame @koangirl for the fact that I snapped the above picture, it's her an her Awesome Mops of China.
Anyhow...back to the party, or the food, whichever you prefer! Since most of my teacher's friends had never eaten Hotpot (or authentic Chinese food for that matter!) before, the poor thing was running around like a headless chicken, trying to make sure everyone was getting on all right... how she didn't go crazy, I don't know. I settled for watching what my teacher's Chinese friends were doing and then proceeded to subtly copy them. It paid off when the other Laowais started asking me for help, which was kind of fun although I didn't profess to know more than actually I did and honestly admitted when I couldn't help them.
Then again, Hotpot really isn't rocket science. You have an array of fresh food to choose from, you pick what you want, you dump it in the pot, you wait for it to cook, you fish it out and you eat. Then repeat until you're stuffed or all the food is gone whichever happens first. On that note, you'll find it close to impossible to finish all the food at a Chinese banquet / dinner. A good host will always ensure that there is more food than you can possibly eat which is exactly what my teacher did.
After over-indulging on the scrumptious food, we did the only sensible thing one can do. We hit the makeshift dance floor to dance off all the calories before they had the chance to do us any harm. There was very little alcohol around (which I was really happy about) but that didn't stop us from going sheer nuts up to the point where we proceeded to dance outside on the street, intermittently wishing everyone a Happy New Year. I have no idea how or why people didn't threaten to call the guards on us but apparently they seemed happy enough to let us have fun until about half three in the morning when we were finally half-dead and the armchairs and couches in the living room began to look more appealing than the dance floor.
Thankfully I was spared the embarrassment that is karaoke but there was plenty of singing, mostly bad singing, and did I mention the crazy dancing?
Somewhere in-between all the dancing and singing we topped up on the calories we'd lost, with 黑芝麻湯圓 (hēi zhīma tāngyuán), my favourite Chinese dessert ever. The English name for the dish would be Chinese Glutinous Rice Balls and they're simply delicious. They aren't super sweet but just sweet enough to silence that sweet tooth of mine for a good while.
|Picture credit: Google Images|
I really could get used to celebrating the Chinese New Year like this...though I did pay the price the following day when I woke up to find that I could barely move a limb. I therefore spent the entire day in bed, not that there's anything wrong with that (if you subtract the pain!). Sundays are meant to be spend in bed, doing nothing, watching silly television or sleeping. On that note, this exactly what I intend to do now...sleep. All this talk about scrubbing floors with Chinese mops, eating delicious Hotpot, fighting with chopsticks, dancing madly and singing 恭喜恭喜 (gōngxǐ gōngxǐ | congratulations) in the totally wrong key made me sleepy and hungry for rice balls...I blame you, yes you, for that my dear reader so pretty pretty please go get me some rice balls when you've finished reading this, which is N.O.W.
谢谢你 ... and ... 再见!
(xièxiè nǐ / zàijiàn! | Thanks! / Bye!)