The Hot Pot Conundrum Explained

Hot pot (火鍋) has to be the single most popular dish in Taiwan. It is served on virtually all occasions, and is the most common choice for dining out among a group of Taiwanese friends.

Hot pot is served by placing a bowl of hot soup stock at the table. Normally the stock is kept hot with some type of burner, built into the table at a restaurant, or a portable burner when done at home. The diners then choose from a variety of Asian foodstuffs placing their choice in the soup. Normal hot pot dishes include seafood, thinly sliced meat, leafy vegetables, various dumplings, wontons, mushrooms, blood cake, and different varieties of tofu. The diners place just a few items in the stock at a time, eat them, and then repeat. Eating hot pot can go on for hours as each person repeatedly cooks and then eats their food.

In Taiwanese restaurants the most common way to serve hot pot is in a chafing dish that has been divided in half, one side containing ma la (麻辣) soup base, which is hot and spicy, while the other side of the chafing dish is a non-spicy soup base. After cooking their food, diners have a number of sauces that they can dip the food in before consuming it.

Hot pot is okay. I don’t hate it. There’s nothing nauseating about it. In my humble opinion, there’s not much to love about it either. Once or twice a year, on a cold winter’s eve, it can be perfectly charming. Where I find it frustrating is that when going out with Taiwanese friends it seems all they ever want to do is have hot pot. It’s not that great. Think about it. What is the worst possible way to prepare food? Answer: Boiling. It leeches all the flavor, color and texture out of the food. That’s not opinion. It’s chemistry. At the end you’re left with a relatively tasteless blob. That’s why a coterie of dipping sauces are needed. Ultimately all you’re tasting is the sauce.

The Taiwanese can really wax poetic about the fine differences in taste between the hot pot at this restaurant versus that restaurant. Don’t believe them. Boiled water tastes the same no matter where it was boiled. Years ago I was going out for dinner with my then girlfriend. We went to a place that had three hot pot restaurants beside each other. One was empty, one was about half full, and the other had customers on every seat, and standing around trying to get seated. I wanted to go to the empty one—that would have been the most comfortable. She wanted to go to the ridiculously full one, because she felt it must be the most delicious. I pointed out to her that they would all be the same. It’s boiled water and the empty restaurant couldn’t screw it up even if they tried. We ended up going to the moderately full restaurant, and when we emerged at the end of the night all three restaurants were equally full, because of course boiled water is boiled water. I recently took a trip to Japan with my wife. While there she wanted to go out for shabu shabu シャブシャブ (Japanese style hot pot), presumably because she thought the boiled water in Japan would taste better than the boiled water in Taiwan. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.

If you eat hot pot in a restaurant, the restaurant does virtually nothing in terms of preparation and presentation. They put a pot of hot soup on your table and turn up the burner. The customers themselves prepare the food. Yet, the price of dining in a hot pot restaurant is comparable to what you might expect to pay at a Chinese restaurant where the food is prepared, nicely presented, and served to you. My personal issue with hot pot restaurants is the food is boiled, thus inherently not particularly delicious. I have to cook it myself, while paying the restaurant a healthy fee to do what? Boil water? There are so many other, better, options for dining out in Taiwan.

When I point out these obvious facts to Taiwanese friends they’re stunned. They’ve eaten hot pot their whole lives and never noticed that the food is poorly prepared, and that—in a restaurant—they’re paying for nonexistent service. After the shock subsides, and they consider it a bit, they usually come back with—it is all about the soup. “Ahhh, we Taiwanese are a soupy people.” And it is true, if you spend several hours boiling various foods in a broth, at the end of the night you are left with an extremely rich and hearty soup. But, here’s how I know they’re lying, either to me, or to themselves. At the end of the evening they don’t spend a lot of time savoring the soup. Generally it just gets a few sips on the way out the door. Having spent hours eating subpar food they spend only a minute or two on the soup, the supposed pièce de résistance. I don’t think so.

I believe the Taiwanese have been eating hot pot their whole lives for its social benefits. Hot pot takes a long time to eat, and I think this is ultimately why hot pot is so popular. The Taiwanese are social eaters and hot pot allows them to eat and socialize for hours on end. There are all kinds of warm emotions associated with the dish, moments of camaraderie with family and friends. They are eating their emotions. The happy memories blind them to the dish’s flaws. Hot pot is the unofficial Taiwanese national dish not because it represents excellent cooking, but because it represents good times with good friends. For this reason I also enjoy hot pot when surrounded by wonderful people.

To Squat or Not to Squat: Sometimes It’s Not a Question

Culture shock is at its most virulent when faced with an incomprehensible toilet. Little strikes fear into the heart of an otherwise intrepid traveler quite like a disgusting bathroom, or worse a toilet they have to guess how to use. Europe’s greatest contribution to world culture has been the flush toilet. Forget art, culture, and philosophy, for my money it’s the flusher. It is no wonder people of European extraction usually look askance at some of the plumbing they encounter around the world. I’m sure many of you have heard of the infamous bathrooms in China, with no stalls, where patrons can drop a deuce in convivial companionship. Perhaps the most stomach-churning illustration of how Chinese culture is more communal than Western culture. It would be an unusually indomitable—or desperate—foreigner who chose to avail himself of these facilities. Beyond this sphincter-puckering extreme, Asia offers a diaspora of toilet adventures for the traveler.

My first journey to Asia was a study-travel trip to Taiwan when I was nineteen years old. Taiwan was my first major trip, independent of my parents, and my first trip abroad. I was a naïve and excited prairie boy ready for new adventures, looking forward to trying every new or strange thing I found. All of that enthusiasm came to a stuttering halt the first time I came face-to-porcelain with a Taiwanese toilet.

On that fateful day I was wandering around Kaohsiung with the wife of our classes’ local guide. She couldn’t speak English; and, I couldn’t speak Chinese. As we poked around the city I began to feel the call of nature. I tried to communicate my predicament to Ms. Lee. I assumed it would be easy. I didn’t have verbal language, but I had body language. So, I shook her shoulder to grab her attention, and then proceeded to, in my humble opinion, clearly and distinctly mime the characteristics of a man in urinary distress. I grabbed my crotch, started moving my hips back and forth, while groaning.

Things went off the rails right from the start.

Apparently my pee-pee dance might also be interpreted as the libidinous thrashing and moaning of a horny teenager. When I perceived, from Ms. Lee’s aghast expression, that nonverbal communication had some intricacies that I needed to work on, I quickly stopped thrusting my pelvis in her general direction and unhanded my junk. I was able to reassure her and make her understand that a toilet would be a delight.

Having cleared up any miscommunication, Ms. Lee took me to a local bookstore and directed me to the washroom in the corner of the store. Giving her many thumbs-ups and happy smiles, I trotted off. But, when I opened the bathroom door my smile dropped into my socks as the downside of international travel was graphically revealed to me.

There was no toilet in the bathroom.

There was only this thing set into the tile floor. I didn’t know what it was. It was kind of a long porcelain basin with a hood at one end. My reaction was, “What the fuuuck!” I circled the offending apparatus, leaning down to examine it more closely from all possible angles. I quickly found that beneath the hood was  a bowl of water with ports for flushing. That part looked rather like a toilet. Unfortunately, some unknown—and clearly sadistic—commercial designer with a weird sense of humor had decided not to attach a seat to this particular toilet.

Now remember, I was nineteen, excited to be in a foreign country, and eager to try all the new strange things that country had to offer. And this—this was strange. So I wanted to give it a shot.

Of course I had no idea what to do, but in my examination of the unit I noted that there seemed to be shoe prints on either side of the basin. So I placed my feet over those prints and looked down. There was no flash of inspiration or enlightenment. I had no idea how I might alleviate my growing intestinal crisis.

I decided to take it one step at a time. My first hurdle was deciding on the proper disposition of my pants. They were clearly in the way, and as I saw it, I had three options; I could lower them to just above knee level, pull them down to the ankles, or I could take them off—for safety. Since it wasn’t clear in my mind how my pants would escape this adventure unsullied if I kept them anywhere near my legs, I took them off and hung them on the door, along with my underwear.

The next problem was which direction to face. I wasn’t sure whether to have my anterior or posterior facing the toilet’s hooded cover. I decided that it made the most sense to have my butt facing the hood. (If you’re going to blow raspberries out your rear-end, you might need a backstop there to catch whatever is coming its way). So, I oriented myself bum-to-hood.

There I was standing naked from the waist down, in a bathroom, in a bookstore, in Kaohsiung, in Taiwan, surfing my first ever wave of culture shock. This was exciting stuff, high drama—the whole reason that I had decided to travel to Asia.

So I tried.

I grunted, groaned, strained, and squawked until my gizzard was bobbing up-and-down like a rooster swallowing a lemon. Nothing happened. Nothing came. I redoubled my efforts, really giving it everything I had, but still zilch. So I took a moment to regroup. That afternoon I learned that culture shock is not always easy to beat. I looked at the toilet and knew I was in a battle of wills; me against the porcelain beast, mano a toilet, and that no matter what happened one of us was going to leave the field of battle sullied.

I gave a final push, roared at the imaginary soldier in my bowels with a ferocity that would have made General Patton blush, and strained until the chords in my neck threatened to pop.


At the time, I didn’t know that this type of toilet was called a squat toilet, and that it behooved the user to squat over the basin. I had been trying to defecate while standing over the porcelain basin. Turns out that human’s don’t poop standing up, except of course at a       kegger—a story for another time.

I thought to myself, “What a retarded toilet!”

But, not me—I’m smart. I analyzed the problem with the intellectual arrogance one would expect from a university sophomore and found a solution brilliant in its simplicity. I would sit on the toilet’s hood and aim the business end of my anatomy in the general direction of the toilet’s gaping maw. That didn’t work. It turns out that the surface of the toilet’s hood was neither comfortable, nor warm, enough to be conducive to a healthy bowel movement.

I gave up.

I bowed my head, put on my underwear, put on my pants, shuffled out of the washroom, and asked Ms. Lee to please, please find me a real toilet.

Culture shock 1: Darren 0.

Being Taiwanese Means Never Saying Sorry

As a Canadian, I am accustomed to apologizing three or four times before breakfast. We say sorry the way New Yorkers say f*#k you—without much planning, sincerity, or even awareness—but an apology is always at the ready. The pre-emptive apology is a common Canadian verbal tick. Not that we’re necessarily all that apologetic in reality, but the words just flow readily from our tongues; it’s a little piece of what makes a Canadian. One of my earliest cross-cultural lessons in Taiwan was delivered by my then American roommate when he sold me his scooter, and threw in the free advice, “If you’re ever in an accident – never apologize! It just sets them [the Taiwanese] off.” Imagine my chagrin. I found it hard not to randomly apologize for no reason; how could I hold in an apology when I had actually done something wrong? The longer I’ve been in Taiwan, and the deeper my interactions with Taiwanese have become, the more I’ve had pause to consider that off-the-cuff warning.

It is true, when dealing with people of Chinese extraction, an upfront apology is rarely advised. The Chinese have a blame culture. If something goes wrong—whether at work, in the home, or on the street—following the incident there is a period of searching for someone to blame. This anecdote was related to me by one of my Taiwanese students, I think she might have been paraphrasing Bo Yang’s book The Ugly Chinaman (醜陋的中國人). She pointed out that when a Westerner is walking down the street and steps in dog shit, he gets a bit upset, wipes it off on the grass, and moves on. If a Chinese person steps in dog shit, he gets irrationally angry at the shit for being there, perhaps yells at it, he then starts angrily accosting passersby searching for the dog owner. Somebody must be blamed. An incident that for the Westerner might last seconds and be forgotten in minutes could consume the Chinese person’s whole morning and eat at his mind all day.

Ideally the search for someone to blame would find the actual guilty party, but that is certainly not necessary, as long as someone is held accountable and everyone acknowledges the “guilty” party. Concepts of face are at the root of the Chinese blame game. In a culture where face is paramount, it is necessary to fight anything that might diminish your face, thus people try to avoid being blamed. Sometimes people, who are clearly in the wrong, contort reality ridiculously to try to avoid blame and the commensurate loss of face.

Perhaps less clear is how the blame game also functions to enforce the social hierarchy. The most stunning examples of this phenomenon come from mainland China. Criminal trials in China are not so much about the rule of law as getting the accused to publically accept blame. News footage of these unfortunates reading clearly coerced confessions on Chinese TV are graphic illustrations of how the blame game works. For Westerners it is hard to see how this serves justice or the truth. It doesn’t. It is simply the blame game being played at the judicial level, and acted out on the national and sometimes international stage. The accused accepts blame and apologizes, while genuflecting toward the state’s power.

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The social hierarchy is affirmed and maintained. In Taiwan, the judicial system left show trials behind with the end of martial law. However, there are still remnants of this in Taiwanese jurisprudence, and in the attitude of Taiwanese citizens, who want to see the accused formally accept blame. That is the blame game writ large, but it is played constantly in the day-to-day lives of Taiwanese, from their smallest familial interactions to workplace intrigues.

When something goes wrong at work, there is an immediate process of trying to fix blame, depending on the magnitude of the screw up, this can involve high-intrigue, infighting, backstabbing and immense political drama. When I first began working in Taiwan I got caught in the center of one of these whirlwinds. The details are unimportant, but someone made a mistake and it was causing big problems for the company. Looking back, I now realize that my Taiwanese coworkers were sharpening their long knives and getting ready for a bout of corporate intrigue, when I breezed in—stupid Canadian—assessed the situation and said something like, “Well, that’s a hell of a mess.” There was some general murmuring among my coworkers about who might be to blame. I cut that off immediately with, “Mistakes were made, if I was at fault, I’m sorry. Now, what should we do to fix the problem?” My colleagues were stunned. This is not the Taiwanese way—face must be preserved. The idea of apologizing for something that is not your fault is sacrilegious. Actually, apologizing for something you did is nearly as bad. I effectively short circuited the palace intrigue before it could get going. Truthfully, I was at most tangentially involved in the error. I was simply doing something that I had learned working in Canada. If the search for a fall guy is getting in the way of efficiently fixing the problem, then just step up, take the blame, and move on. I watched people who arrived from Canada after me do the same thing.

The same principles can be seen at play in all Taiwanese social interactions, from an altercation on the street to dating and marriage. In my interactions with Taiwanese girlfriends, and now my wife, I have been annoyed by an inability to discuss things that I am unhappy about. When I express dissatisfaction with anything, whether it is her fault or not, sometimes there’s no way it could be her fault, she is likely to react with anger and accuse me of blaming her—a high sin in Taiwan’s blame culture. It makes it difficult to have any type of meaningful conversation when your partner automatically feels that they’re being blamed. Understand here, that as a Westerner you might not enjoy being blamed, but it probably doesn’t cause you to have paroxysmal spasms of existential self-doubt. It does for the Taiwanese. Indeed every relationship I’ve had with a woman of Chinese cultural extraction, from Hong Kong to Beijing, has had this issue.

It is very difficult for a Taiwanese person to say, “I’m sorry.” Apologizing is admitting culpability and accepting blame, with all the loss of face this involves. I have been married for nine years. I don’t remember my wife ever apologizing first. The same thing is true for past girlfriends. If they did something wrong, there will be no apology. You [as the wronged party] need to figure out a way to apologize to them for whatever they did wrong. It can be pretty damn challenging. They will pout, get angry, and behave miserably until you apologize. Once you have apologized, then they will feel free to apologize for whatever they did wrong. I have discussed this with many foreign married men, and others in long term relationships, and this seems to be pretty universal. It doesn’t make Taiwanese women bad people. It just means that apologizing has a different cultural meaning and gravitas.

One social phenomenon I noted when I first arrived in Taiwan is that old married couples here seem to grow apart, rather than together. In Canada, if a couple dodges divorce for a few decades, then they seem to demonstrate a mature intimacy and closeness. In Taiwan, old married couples often seem to be married in name only, with little genuine affection remaining. I recognize that the causes of this are multivariate, but I wonder if at the core isn’t the inability of both parties to apologize. Over time, the ability to discuss things grounds

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to a halt on the shoals of past perceptions of blame and recrimination, until eventually it is easier to avoid discussions that risk dredging up unresolved issues. It is hard for past issues to heal without the catharsis offered by apology. Indeed, avoiding topics that might cause debate, with its looming threat of acrimony and blame, is a common conversational strategy in Asia. It is good for maintaining a veneer of civility in the wider society, but when this is extended into intimate relationships I think it discourages true intimacy.

I have lived in Taiwan for around twenty years. I don’t have real issues with losing face or taking blame, but I have become much more strategic in how and when I apologize. Before, I used to toss out apologies like Johnny Appleseed tossing seeds. Now, I think about what results an apology will achieve, if it is beneficial or not. I don’t really calculate based on face, as a Taiwanese person would, but rather on whether it will produce the social result I desire. With my wife I always apologize first, occasionally I wait a little while—to enjoy the silent treatment—but I always apologize fairly quickly. If you don’t find a way to apologize reasonably quickly minor arguments can quickly spiral out of control. It is just not worthwhile to do anything else. In other contexts I have become more calculating and slower to apologize.

As for receiving apologies, I recently was surprised to find out how Taiwanese I’ve become. My social attitudes can best be described as a messy goulash of Canadian and Taiwanese mores, where even I don’t know if my reaction will be Western or Asian. Last year my oldest Canadian friend came to visit me in Taiwan. We spent a few days bicycling along Taiwan’s coast, from Taipei to Hualien. On the second morning, we awoke at dawn to find he’d lost the key to his bike lock, with the bike locked to a pole in the middle of nowhere. The entire journey was in peril, so my friend did the Canadian thing, he turned to me and gave me a very heartfelt apology, dripping with sincerity. My reaction stunned me; I hated it. I wasn’t really mad at him. Shit happens. The Canadian in me understood what he was doing; the Taiwanese in me had no use for his apology and didn’t want to hear it—perhaps the most singularly unCanadian moment of my life. For the first time I began to understand how an apology might set a Taiwanese person off. My instincts are still basically Canadian, I always want to apologize, but I have to think about whether it will come around to bite me. As a practical matter, I seldom apologize in Taiwan. And, when I have a traffic accident, I never apologize.

Vignette #2: But Is It Dessert?


I’ve inferred in earlier posts that the Taiwanese have little to no comprehension of dessert (here). I’d like to share a memory from when I had just moved to Taiwan that graphically illustrates the point.

One of the first friends I made in Taiwan invited me to join her and a group of friends for dinner. It was a lovely evening where we were graciously treated to a nice meal by one of her friends. After dinner we wandered over to a cuo bing (剉冰), Taiwanese shaved ice, shop. This is a popular local dessert where a plate is filled with shaved ice and the customer can add their choice of toppings. It is very refreshing in the Taiwanese heat.

Cuo bing toppings. Darren Haughn © 2017

It’s the toppings that give insight into Taiwanese dessert philosophy. There are a few toppings that a Westerner might expect, sugary candies of various sorts. These are for children and I’ve never seen an adult, other than myself, choose them. For adults there is a wide array of flavorless choices, including; red beans, green beans, taro, yams, dou hua 豆花 (a tofu-like bean product, lacking tofu’s taste and texture), Job’s tears and various other boiled grains. In short, if it tastes like wet cardboard then it is regarded as dessert-worthy.

Which brings us back to my reminiscing. After a fine meal with new friends, I was expecting an equally fine dessert. You can imagine my shock when we all gathered around a bowl of shaved ice on which the shopkeeper had unceremoniously dumped a can of corn. The corn was literally standing in the center of the shaved ice in a semi-gelatinous blob, having retained the contours of the can it so recently occupied. My new friends were digging into it with relish, raving about how delicious it was. I was poleaxed. After overcoming my initial stunned reaction I had to struggle not to break into peels of laughter. I didn’t want to do anything that would crap all over the kindness that had been extended to me, but come on, how is that dessert?!?


Gimme the Tofu, and Lay Some Stank on It

To the average Westerner tofu is little more than an uninteresting, jiggly, white mass of blandness. I suppose that is because most of us first meet tofu at a local Chinese restaurant of questionable culinary skill and authenticity, where perhaps we come face-to-face with it simply cut into a soup, without any further preparation. When first encountering these little blobs of colorless, tasteless, textureless nothingness—it is hard to be impressed. Or, perhaps you met tofu in the form of a fake turkey roll brought to Thanksgiving dinner by a hippie aunt – that would be enough to traumatize anyone. It is perhaps inevitable that tofu has become the brunt of punchlines for American sitcoms and comedians alike.

For one, such as myself, raised in such a place, Taiwanese tofu and its use in cooking comes as quite a revelation. Among tofu cognisanti—yes there is such a thing—Taiwan is considered to be one of the finest makers of tofu. The breadth of different types of tofu that are manufactured here is stunning. Likewise the variety of dishes that use tofu is amazing. It is ubiquitous in Taiwanese food, and far from western perceptions of tofu, it is often used in stunning and adventurous ways in Taiwanese food.

For the purposes of this post I want to concentrate on one particular iteration of tofu that is very popular in Taiwan—chou doufu, or stinky tofu. It is one form of fermented tofu. Its production is a bit similar to how cheese is produced. The tofu is allowed to sit in a bacterial brine for a period ranging from days to months, depending on how the final product will be used. If it is intended simply to be added into other dishes, as an accent, it may only sit in the brine for a matter of days. Long enough to develop some smell, but not long enough to thoroughly ferment. The brine used varies from maker to maker. The brine may include a proprietary mix of fermented milk, meat and/or seafood, along with vegetable matter. Presumably, the smellier the mash the better the tofu. A typical brine might include Chinese herbs, dried fish or dried shrimp, bamboo, mustard and amaranth greens.

When the tofu finishes its production process its looks are substantially altered. It is no longer a pure white, but instead takes on the greyish tone of slightly decayed meat. (If you’ve ever taken an anatomy class you know the color well). Also, the individual tofu cakes are slightly pressed, giving them a denser consistency.

But, what about the smell that gives stinky tofu its name? I am sure that everyone experiences the smell differently, but for me stinky tofu smells remarkably like day old feces on sweaty ass crack. Indeed, on my first trip to Taiwan I marveled that street vendors would consistently set up their food stalls beside an open or broken sewer line, when they could easily have moved their stall a block up the street to a location where there was no raw sewage smell. Little did I know at the time that what I was actually smelling was what the food the vendor was selling. That revelation wouldn’t come until I actually moved to Taiwan several years later.

So, how does it taste? Wonderful! It has a complex earthy flavor with just a hint of shit on the palatte, most noticeable in the aftertaste. It is a rich pungent flower, comparable to a smelly cheese. I think this is the best way to think of stinky tofu—it is like blue cheese. Most cultures have their own pungent semi-rotten food that they enjoy, whether it is blue cheese, Norwegian lutefisk, Vietnamese hoi sin sauce, the sun dried (rotted) meat common in many regional cuisines. Stinky tofu is simply the strong tasting treat that sets the Taiwanese salivating.

Stinky tofu is served in a wide variety of dishes from san bei chou doufu (three cups stinky tofu) to kung pao stinky tofu (like kung pao chicken, but with stinky tofu). The most common ways to see stinky tofu served on the street or in the night markets of Taiwan is in a spicy soup—ma la chou doufu—or deep fried. The later is delicious, though my favorite is the slightly less common grilled stinky tofu, Danshui style. Stinky tofu is available almost everywhere, day or night, from street corners to the market. It is a wonderful late night snack and is the perfect accompaniment for your after work beer. Deep fried stinky tofu is served with lightly pickled cabbage leaves and hot sauce. The tofu itself is very crispy on the outside, but when you bite into it your taste buds are rewarded with the wonderfully rich and pungent flavors of a well-ferment cake of bean curd. I love it so much that I have even become a bit picky about my stinky tofu. I won’t accept it if it doesn’t have enough of a fecal smell. I am inevitably disappointed if I bite into a nice aromatic piece of tofu only to find out that it lacks the  flavor that its smell promised.

If you’re in Taiwan and want to try this delectable treat, just follow your nose. In my opinion, not to mention that of millions of Taiwanese, it is well worth the effort.