Singapore Stories: All-You-Can-Eat Steamboat Buffet (Chinese Hot Pot)
Eating family style is big in Singapore, and one of the most popular ways to do it is with a style of eating that's over a thousand years old: a good ol' Chinese steamboat dinner. Steamboat, also known as Chinese hot pot, refers to cooking fresh, raw ingredients yourself in a constantly simmering soup base. Hot soup is not exactly what you'd expect to crave here in hot Singapore, but you just do it. It helps to have a cold beer nearby.
While some restaurants do it à la carte, I've always been a sucker for the all-you-can-eat buffets. For about $20/person you can have the spread of fixins at the tip of your tongs, and cook and eat to your hearts content. While you can find these restaurants all over Singapore, some streets are chock full of them, many of them looking exactly the same. I haven't eaten at enough restaurants to be a connoisseur when it comes to which ones are the best, but I've sampled steamboat in Chinatown and in a steamboat restaurant-heavy part of town called Bugis, where I slurped last night.
Each table is set up with it's own hotplate for the soup. You can pick a selection of broths from spicy Sichuan, tom yam, laksa, and chicken broth. My favorites are the Sichuan and tom yam soups. Our waiter tried to dissuade us from ordering the Sichuan.
"No, no, too hot," he said.
Our response: "Perfect."
If you're a fan of yong tao foo, you'll love this way of eating because you can see pick exactly what you feel like eating and make it personal, even though you're doing it family style. Just head up to the raw bar and pick whatever you want: different varieties of mushrooms, greens, egg, beef, chicken seafood, tofu, bouncy fish and meat balls, and all types of noodles (even instant ramen). I love mussels and crab legs, though I always find it a hassle to deal with the hot soup and the shell. Some restaurants have a much more plentiful selection than others.
My favorite ingredients are mushrooms and anything tofu, mainly dried tofu and ribbons of bean curd skin. You have to be somewhat mindful of remembering to keep your raw foods separate from your eating utensils and bowls. It's easy to become sloppy about it as your table fills up with plates of ingredients and you're eager to get your new plate of goodies into the soup.
Toss it all in, let it cook as the flavors infuse into the foods, and enjoy. This is not the meal to have if you're in a rush. Steamboat is a leisurely, social affair. The broths are super concentrated, flavorful, and pretty salty (expect to drink lots of water after your meal). The Sichuan soup was numbing and screaming hot (pain = yum). After a while when the broth have simmered down, servers come around to replenish your pot with fresh water.
For dessert, this restaurant offered melon and tiny cakey fried pastries that were like doughnut poppers but not too sweet. A fitting mild ending to an intensely flavored meal.
About the author: Yvonne Ruperti is a food writer, recipe developer, former bakery owner, and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide To Easy Artisan Bread. You can also watch her culinary stylings on the America's Test Kitchen television show. She presently lives in Singapore working on her new baking cookbook, and as a recipe developer for HungryGoWhere Singapore. Check out her blog, shophousecook.com, or follow her on Twitter @yvonneruperti.