My Very Hot Pot Summer

I was born in New York, and though I grew up in Hong Kong I always knew I would go back to the US for college. It had been drummed into me as a child, having grown up on a steady diet of imported American music, movies and TV (always a season behind). I was excited about properly participating in American culture and college life, which I imagined to be a mashup of She’s All That, Can’t Hardly Wait and Ten Things I Hate about You. (Not for a second did I buy that these people were HIGH SCHOOLERS. C’mon.) It seems crazy when I think about it now, but at the time it didn’t seem all that wild to move an ocean away from my parents and everything I knew, without the option of coming home whenever I felt homesick. The summer before my freshman year my biggest worry was not “what if I don’t fit in?” or “what if I fail all my classes?” but “what will I eat?”

My mother’s worries amounted to about the same. Well, that, and judging by the size and puffiness of the jacket she bought me, “will she freeze her ass off in Connecticut?”

I was looking forward to real pizza, real burgers, and revisiting the sugary glory that is Cinnamon Toast Crunch, which I had discovered a year earlier at a summer camp in the States. At the same time, though, I was dreading being without char siu (Chinese BBQ pork), wonton noodles, congee (rice porridge), roast pigeon (my favorite), dumplings of all shapes and styles, braised duck’s feet and duck’s tongues, my grandma’s taro cake and sticky rice cake, and on and on and on.

My mother, the logical tactician of our family and one of my favorite eating partners, decided we should make a short list of all the food I HAD to eat before I left for college, and we would systematically knock them out in the month and a half I had left. She methodically went down my list and made notes—she’d make reservations, she’d invite family to this meal, and maybe my godfather to this other meal, and she’d set my grandma to work. Then she came to the last item and hesitated:

  • shuan yang rou at Chung Chuk Lau

Shuan yang rou is a Mongolian-style lamb hot pot that is very popular in Beijing and other parts of Northern China. It is a dish eaten in the depths of winter because it involves dunking paper-thin slices of lamb and other accompaniments like veggies, dumplings, tofu, and noodles in boiling hot liquid. This feast is then dipped into a sauce that you’ve tailored for yourself from pots upon pots of sauces, oils and herbs—soy sauce, sesame paste, chili oil, salted bean paste, sugar, black vinegar, spring onions, cilantro, garlic, ginger, etc – and the entire time you are leaning over a bubbling hot pot. The steam is great for your skin; all that chili oil, not so much.

I grew up with this as a winter tradition. We would go with my mother’s whole family to Chung Chuk Lau, our favorite Northern Chinese restaurant that had been in business since my mom was a kid, and indulge for hours on plates and plates of delicious lamb.

Now, Hong Kong gets up to the high nineties with 80-90% humidity on the reg in July and August, so it’s understandable that this item caused my mother some pause. “Er, I don’t even think this place does shuan yang rou in the summer,” my mom said. “It’s way too hot!” But, seeing my crestfallen face, she gamely offered to make a call and inquire.

I could only hear her end of the conversation, but I’m pretty sure the guy on the other end thought we were nuts. Still, my mother convinced them to let the two of us come in for some shuan yang rou at an off hour on a weekday. (I believe my dad’s official response was: “Hell no, I’m not coming! Are you out of your damn minds?”)

I remember being ushered upstairs, away from the sane people having normal lunches. I remember being shown to a dark corner and seated at a large round table for six to eight. I remember the two industrial-sized fans the restaurant had set up for us, one pointed directly at me and one pointed directly at my mom, blowing at full tilt to cool us down as the hot pot bubbled and frothed in our faces. I remember the tray of sauces all for us, no need to share with another table, no need to rush to get the balance of sweet, salty, umami, and sour just right. I remember wiping away the sweat as we dipped and swished. And of course I remember the meal: the meltingly thin slices of lamb mixed with the salt and sweet of the sauce, the crunch of the sesame bread pockets we stuffed the lamb into, the juicy dumplings, the soft tofu and noodles that had soaked up the soup, thick with the gamey flavor of all the lamb we’d just cooked.

Most of all, though, I remember the two uninterrupted hours I spent with my mom talking about college and hearing her stories of her days at the University of Kansas.

Most of all, though, I remember the two uninterrupted hours I spent with my mom talking about college and hearing her stories of her days at the University of Kansas. We don’t do overt displays of emotion much in my family, but my mother pleading with the restaurant to set up this unseasonal feast of lamb—that was her way of telling me she loved me and that she would miss me.

Of course, that winter break I came home to Hong Kong, and off we went as a family to Chung Chuk Lau. I should have known that I wouldn’t have been parted from my beloved shuan yang rou for long, but I’m glad I was so blissfully short-sighted. Otherwise I wouldn’t have this treasured memory of me and my mom, sweating and bonding over lamb hot pot, fans blasting at our faces.

Chung Chuk Lau closed shortly after I graduated from college. I’ve had other shuan yang rou since, of course—but none has been as good. For many, summer calls for burgers and hotdogs on the grill; berry pie and watermelon. But for me, every time summer rolls around and the days get longer and the sun brighter I crave my mom and me and a hot pot full of lamb.

Born in New York and raised in Hong Kong, Ada Fung now lives in the Bay Area putting her skills at sniffing out good food to use. She will try almost any dish once–except eggs that, when cooked, still resemble eggs. Warning: if you step foot in her house, she will feed you. Tweet at her at @adatrix.

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