Natalie Tan

Simmer Down, Issue #22 02.02.2021

cold weather, hot pot

(siri, play Lorde’s “Melodrama”)

“Can you get hypothermia indoors UK” is an actual Google search I made last week, once the post-snow glow of blue skies and crisp air wore off. It is something I have pondered throughout my life as a human of the cold-blooded variety, but its hypothetical state never teetered on the cusp of real anxiety until I moved here. You think I’m being dramatic? Have you ever felt the wind blow on your calves or seen it softly flutter your curtains through closed windows?

The cold weather has its positives; its properties produce the perfect companion to hot pot. In my life, hot pot is the marker of half the year’s seasonal transitions–the first hot pot in November signifies the shift to the everlong months of winter, and the last one means spring is near. I have never experienced nor seen a morose hot pot session, for it is essentially a celebratory meal. Not necessarily a festive affair for life’s big events, but a celebration of everyday life, of the home, of eating well, and of being together. In fact, I believe if you have a fight before hot pot, the hot pot effectively gets cancelled.

We’ve had hot pot at my house for as long as I can remember, just the three of us sitting around plates of raw and pre-cooked morsels ready to be dipped into our modernized boiling cauldron, and then dipped again into small dishes of salty and spicy condiments. I have always revelled in the moment when we all sit down and someone takes the lid off the electric pot to reveal beef and chicken balls and cubes of fish tofu, puffed and buoyant, bobbing around the perimeter of the rolling liquid. When I was little, using my slotted ladle to fish around the pot was exciting; to pick and choose what you wanted from a smorgasbord of deliciousness seemed like the greatest form of dinnertime agency.

Hot pot carries with it a network of lessons that, through the act of cooking and communal eating, teaches timing and gratitude. It also demonstrates that in the minutiae of everyday life you may be rewarded with the fruits of some of your labour. Dip, swish, scoop confidently to learn timing: thin beef and lamb for seconds, shrimp for 2 minutes, pea shoots until leaves are soft and stems still crunch, fresh fish paste plopped in floats when ready, and daikon left in for a long time will soften until they give in to the grip of your chopsticks. Throughout the meal, others’ utensils will find their way to your bowl, dropping food in before pivoting back to get some for themselves. Take their offerings without complaint or rejection. Don’t thank them with words, but by eating and smiling and returning the gesture. The payoff of hot pot is presented from start to end, when what remains in the pot is a fortified soup, perfect for cooking the final course of noodles (a must), all of which is seasoned by any remaining sauces you may have.
Since the cold weather hit, every week I’ve thought about hot pot. If friends share their hot pot on Instagram, I longingly replay their stories over and over again. I think about how nice it would be to sit at a table for hours with the windows steaming from rolling hot pot vapours. But I really can’t do that alone.

When will I see you again?

Yes, you.

The feeling in my chest and my cheeks at the memory of you are dulling, and soon I might lose the ability to remember what it feels like at the thought of stepping out the door into the cold air to come and meet you. I think so much about spinning a lazy susan full of steamer baskets at dim sum, two for one cocktails at happy hour, legendary burgers with cheese, dirty burgers and pegu clubs, a rarebit and half a dozen madeleines, Punk IPAs at the pub, baked pork chop on rice, chili cumin chicken, and a table covered in little plates of ingredients and sauces around a huge boiling pot of broth, but I can’t do those things without you.

Could I ever be content at the prospect of my chopsticks touching my lips before dunking and swishing them in the same boiling vessel as you, and drinking that same broth while slurping noodles, their ends twisting in the air, shaking off soup like one would on the pool deck after a long swim, before I tuck them away?

I want to sit across from you and indulge in fantastical scenarios that’ll never happen, and name our sophomore albums, and laugh until we weep and clutch our sides. I want to sit for hours in a restaurant and walk together to the Tube station afterwards where we continue laughing between glimpses at Google Maps. But now I feel like those teardrops, the laughter, the air between us could be mutually poisonous, and I don’t want that for you. I can’t even get to you. You are there, and there, and there, and there.

I’m stuck here. The radiator rumbles on next to me, yet I feel colder than ever.