A steamboat, or hotpot, resting on a table with various raw ingredients.
Travel & Culture

Steamboat: A Chinese New Year Tradition

Growing up in Singapore, I couldn’t imagine Chinese New Year without steamboat, or hotpot as the rest of the world calls it. My mother would never let that happen on her watch. 

Chinese New Year falls on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, usually between 21 January and 20 February each year, and lasts 15 days. This year, it would be on 12 February, with festivities starting the night before in the form of the reunion dinner and countdown. 

Ang pow (red envelopes containing cash) and many pairs of mandarin oranges would be exchanged as well as copious amounts of yusheng (raw fish salad) tossed and traditional snacks such as kuih bangkit (crumbly coconut cookies) and pineapple tarts mindlessly consumed in back-to-back house visits but to me, it is steamboat that completes Chinese New Year.

Nothing marks the celebration more than the festive chaos of family huddled around a table with endless plates of raw ingredients, leafy green vegetables and spicy dipping sauces, young and old all talking at the same time.

A steamboat, resembling a large inverted bundt pan, takes centrestage. A narrow ring of meat and vegetables swim in piping-hot boiling soup while the chimney in the middle allows steam and heat to escape amid dancing flames from the burning charcoal at the base.

As a child, I remember trying to perfect the delicate balancing act of taking cooked pieces of food with my chopsticks without burning my fingers on the metal pot. I’ll take living dangerously at the dinner table over Chinese New Year spring cleaning anytime. 

Singaporeans enjoy steamboat all year round, even when it is a sweltering 95°F. Today, most of us have also forsaken traditional charcoal-fired steamboats for more convenient pots on electric induction stoves, bringing about a democratic evolution of a festive dish to an everyday meal  accessible to all.

A bubbling steamboat at a dinner party means people can come and go as they like – and even pop back for a second helping. It is a meal that can be as fast or as long as you want it to be. My record to date was a hasty 1.5-hour lunch at a steamboat restaurant on a workday with Melissa, a Taiwanese-American coworker in Shanghai, China.

Different foods have different cooking times. You cook what you want to eat and you choose whether to dip it in sauce or not. Even a steamboat novice will pick it up in no time.

For those who are unsure of steamboat etiquette, you could opt to cook a bit more food than what you need each time so you can offer the food to others at the table. It’s also bad form to take meat from the pot that someone else had put in and was waiting for. When unsure, ask if you could take the food before you ladle it out into your bowl.

The beauty of steamboat is that it need not always be elaborate with dozens of ingredients. I could easily whip something up, using what I have in the fridge, particularly ideal during these pandemic times when people work from home, avoid restaurants and are running out of meal ideas.

Feel free to free-style and let your preferences dictate what you want in your steamboat. For dinner parties, I like to keep it simple with sliced pork collar, meatballs, tofu, udon and a whole bunch of fresh vegetables and mushrooms. If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll add some fresh prawns and sliced fish.

As if there are not enough options already, the dual-sided pot made popular in Sichuan Mala hotpot presents two more for the indecisive – two different types of soup bases. 

I would go with a non-spicy soup and a spicy soup so that everyone’s happy. Personally, I’ll cook pretty much everything in the spicy soup and only blanch leafy green vegetables in the non-spicy soup. 

Asian grocery stores stock a variety of steamboat soup packs such as mushroom, Thai tom yum, Sichuan mala and tomato. Otherwise Tetra Pak chicken broth or Japanese dashi powder would work too.

The dipping sauce is key in steamboat. In Singapore, everyone customizes a dipping sauce to his or her own liking, usually a permutation of varying quantities of sesame oil, fresh chili rings, roughly-chopped coriander, spring onion and garlic doused in soy sauce and Chinkiang black vinegar.

What I love most about steamboat is that it transforms the process of eating into a leisurely, communal activity where the cooking process becomes a vital part of the experience and people bond over the simple joys of sharing delicious food over laughter and good conversations.

For those who are still hesitant about eating from a shared pot, a precaution has recently emerged, keeping up with the times: More people are starting to use serving chopsticks when eating steamboat to combat possible Covid-19 infections in a communal dining setting.

My friends know I am obsessed about steamboat and I definitely have bonded with quite a number of people in various cities over our common love for steamboat. 

As a no-recipe meal that can be easily improvised, it is no wonder why steamboat ranks high on my list of favorite foods to make when I was living abroad. 

I prepared steamboat whenever I felt homesick and whenever I wanted to introduce a slice of Singapore to foreign friends. With steamboat, there is something for everyone. Admittedly, it is a lazy cop out, I just handle the mise en place and my guests cook dinner themselves at the table.

Long after we left the company, Melissa and I kept in touch. She eventually moved to France while I moved to Hong Kong. One year, I made plans to visit her, lugging a dual-sided pot, that is hard to find outside of Asia, all the way from Hong Kong to the French Alps.

For three consecutive days, our après-ski dinner comprises cheese fondue and steamboat alongside enough bottles of French wine to guarantee hours of merry-making.

It was almost surreal, reuniting with old friends over steamboat at a table too small to sit six in the deep of winter in southeastern France. In my book, that was a truly memorable ski trip, worth lugging a pot halfway across the world for.