Above: See that goofball smile? That's my happy-cuz-I'm-steamboating face. Friends might tell you I look like that a lot. Fair cop. Really good friends will be able to tell the subtle differences between my various goofball happy-cuz-I'm- <insert other food activity> faces.
Why does the phrase "in the soup" mean that you're in trouble?
For me, being in the soup -- of hotpot or steamboat or nabe or shabu shabu or Chinese fondue (whatever you call it where you are) -- is the best way for me to transcend the muck of any internal trouble I'm feeling. It's like a jacuzzi for the soul.
Maybe the savoury hot broth helps to melt away internal emotional blockages. Maybe the community warmth and fuzziness of a table full of people cooking, chatting, laughing and eating around a steaming cauldron on a chilly evening (or even steamy tropical heat, really) softens emotional bristly-ness.
Maybe just to gaze upon the annual Soh family epic steamboat spread during Chinese New Year (below) is enough to make me cackle any crankiness away.
I can't imagine I'm the lone believer in the magical restorative abilities of steamboat. Why else would it have popped up in so many nooks and crannies of this big wide world during our 15 months on the road? And sometimes in the most unlikely of corners?
Okay, so maybe it has something to do with the unstoppable sprawl of commodity-hungry, infrastructure-building savvy Chinese diaspora around the world, and steamboat being the perfect product to pitch to homesick overseas Chinese communities. But why let facts get in the way of a good story, eh.
So how unlikely are these unlikely steamboat satellites?
Well. How about Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, for a start?
At Beautiful China (Mhasibu House, NBAA, Bibititi Mohamed Rd; +255 22 215 0548), a steamboat feast was quite the treat after volunteering on a farm in rural western Kenya without electricity or running water.
We didn't order the extent of this feast (below) on purpose. Really! This is what we got after calling ahead just to say we wanted hotpot. The table next to us had the same amount of food. Except their table had 8 people, vs our 2. Still, we made more progress than I care to admit...
Thanks so much to G*Star for sending us this lead.
Another unlikely steamboat satellite was amid the blazing deserts of Abu Dhabi in the UAE.
Far from the glitzy resorts and shopping malls, Qian Zhou Hotpot (Nadja Street, Al Markaziyah West; +971 2 674 5677) is a hidden soupy oasis, with good quality broth, fresh and authentic produce, and an impressive array of dipping sauces for you to use individually or to create a DIY-custom blend. Again, this was a lovely recharge of something familiar and comforting after a month of stuffing our faces with delectable but heavier meats, rices and mezzes of Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
Thanks so much to Louise and Herbert for hunting down this location for us and taking us there and treating us to boot!
Above: See? There's that goofy smile again
Asia is no surprise territory for steamboat. Or so I thought.
In Hanoi, Vietnam, I was utterly delighted by Kichi-Kichi Hotpot (1A Tang Bat Ho, Hai Bà Tru'ng) because it combined hotpot AND a kaiten aka sushi-style conveyor belt. Which means you can slurp away and watch a world (of temptations) go by. Be still my beating heart.
Your fixed fee of under £10 gets you unlimited access to soup stock and anything on the belt. Drinks and premium food items for your cauldron are extra. I found the basic belt spread to be pretty satisfactory, frankly.
Food aside, I ate at Kichi-Kichi with very mixed feelings. Circa 2007 I had a pipe dream to launch this exact restaurant concept in London. So I was very frustrated to see that someone else got to it first, but elated to see that the concept is obviously viable -- the place was packed to the gills when we were there and Kichi-Kichi apparently has quite a few other outlets around Hanoi.
While in Kyoto, Japan, our merry Solihull crew of 6 spent an evening sampling sumo-style steamboat (say it 6 times swiftly!) at Tian Shan Sumo (3, 4, Yamatooji, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto Hakatacho, 605-0805; +81 75-561-7378).
Be prepared to pay between £40-50 per person, but you will be stuffed silly by the end of the evening with impeccable produce and service.
While waiting for your streaky meat to scald, sip on some sake or beer and pick your object of sumo-star aspiration from the posters plastered to the walls.
Shoutout to Team Dom!
You have a choice of letting the waitstaff fuss over you, or you can get involved yourself. Our mate Chris reckons the experience is enhanced by you making "shabooooo shaboooo" sound effects as your swish around your paper-thin beef slices in the soup.
And then there are the steamboat soirees money just can't buy.
Like the one on Wednesdays at the Chinese food resto-canteen at Google HQ in Mountain View, California USA. If you don't work at Google you can't pay money to eat here, but if you've got a friend at Google who likes you enough, you eat for free!
The range of steamboat dishes here was understandably more limited and basic compared to a commercial steamboat restaurant, but because Google works hard to source canteen food ingredients from local farmers, the freshness of the meats and vegetables were top notch.
Many thanks to Gus and Basil (and Larry and Sergei) for a very special steamboat lunch, complete with a view of some hyper-geeky meeting rooms!)
Love also always trumps money at the steamboat soirees hosted by your fabulous friends and their families. So to the Hans, Foxy Foong and "Hollow Legs" Jas and her ever-patient Dom, much much much love.
So once Babs and I settled back into London town after the big gallavant, it was no stretch to believe that steamboat would be a fabulous way to get together with a few London foodbloggers and get to know our London foodie community a little better.
Little Lamb (72 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6NA; +44 20 7287 8078) in Chinatown is a humble non-descript looking outfit, but when I was homesick for Singapore this past Chinese New Year and feeling in a bit of a funk about work, this Mary had a Little Lamb, and damn it saved my life! (Kudos to reviews by Meemalee and Tamarind and Thyme, whose reviews inspired me to go.)
You can order ala carte, or you and your mates can go for the £20 pax set meal, where each person gets to pick 5 generously-sized dishes.
I was sceptical about the blue swimmer crabs on my first visit, but tried them on my second. They turned out to be surprisingly fresh and meaty, keeping some bite rather than disintigrating into powdery mush after cooking in the broth.
The varied marbling on the beef, pork and lamb slices are a work of art.
Bubble bubble, toil and trouble begone!
The meat skewers are also definitely worth a try -- lots of tantalising chili pepper and cumin spicing.
And now to close, shoutouts to the very sporting food blogger folks who ventured out for a steamy good time despite it being a ludicruously sunshiny day in London! Thank God for Gelupo afterwards.
Remember folks, when life gets you in the soup, the get in the soup gooooooood, get all souped up and then get back in the game. Better yet, have a few friends along. The killer combination of broth and brethren will surely pick you right up and set you off steaming ahead again. Wherever in the world you might be.
So tell me, where's your favourite hotpot haven in the world?