The Chinese are taking over Al Barsha. So far this year, two hot pot restaurants and a Chinese grocery store have opened their doors in this bustling Dubai neighborhood.
One of my favorite family dinners was when my mom invited friends and relatives over for hot pot. Perhaps because I was never allowed to cook at home, hot pot really appealed to me as a child because it was one of the few times I was allowed to prepare my own food with something other than a microwave.
The iPad menu was already waiting for me as I sat down at a booth in the newly opened Delicious Fish Fish Restaurant (what a name!) in the Al Barsha neighborhood of Dubai. We were a small group of four food bloggers that evening: Razena (Tantalise My Tastebuds), Rupal (Foodie & Fabulous), Sayana (My Mouth is Full) and myself.
In Chinese hot pot, a large pot of broth is placed over a portable single stove in the middle of the dining table. My mom would spend the better part of a day making this broth from different kinds of meat bones. Then she would put out a spread of raw vegetables, raw seafood, and raw meat around the hot pot. This required a lot of prep work. Cleaning, cutting, plating…
I flipped through the iPad menu for our hot pot options and explained the concept of Chinese hot pot. Everything gets cooked at the table by dunking the food into the broth. I suggested we order the “Chinese traditional twins pot” which is a ying yang pot of half non-spicy chicken broth and half very spicy beef-and-other-things broth. And then we could choose which raw items to dump into the pots.
One year we upgraded to a portable gas stove powered by a butane canister instead of one that had to be plugged into the wall. As soon as the pot of mom’s broth came to a vigorous boil, it was time to start cooking. My mom had a system: those items that took longest to cook like beef balls and fish balls would go into the pot first. And those that took only a few seconds would go in afterwards.
“This is very communal,” exclaimed Sayana, who then confessed that this was the first time she was out without husband nor child since her now 2-year-old was born. We gave her high-fives all around. As a mom of small children, I could totally imagine what she was going through.
There were some items that may be considered “exotic” by non-Chinese standards so I checked with the group to see if there were any dietary restrictions.
No beef for Rupal but no issues with it being in the same broth as non-beef items. Sayana expressed no interest in lamb brains, intestines, stomach, etc. Razena was happy with most of everything.
We almost always had the same items for hot pot at home: thinly sliced beef, beef balls, tripe, fried tofu, squid, shrimp, fish balls, watercress, spinach, and some bitter vegetable I don’t know the English name for.
I flipped through each and every item on the iPad menu stopping only to place a tick mark on the order form for those items that looked appetizing. In the end we ordered: special beef flakes (beef carpaccio), crab balls, fish balls, small beef stomach (I couldn’t resist this tripe), squid, shrimps, needle mushroom, Thai fungus (I know these as wood ear mushroom), white radish (aka daikon), bok choy, handmade noodles, and a fried tofu dish that never came. And for dessert, golden buns. Think we ordered enough?
The ying yang pot arrived and my eyes went wide at the red fiery color of the spicy broth. I remember the tongue-numbing properties of that broth from a hot pot experience in Beijing with my sister. I was going to need a large bottle of cooling water to douse the peppery flames that would soon engulf my mouth. Beer would be ideal but the restaurant was not licensed to serve liquor.
I really liked the minimalist decor of this restaurant. It wasn’t too cookie cutter Chinese restaurant with bad wallpaper nor kitschy ornaments.
It was more modern with one wall having that uneven faux stone look that I like plus there was this wall to wall black and white artsy drawing on the two opposite walls.
And of course no Chinese establishment in Dubai is complete without the handing red lanterns.
My little sisters and I were allowed to place whatever we wanted into the broth. As long as my mom gave us the okay. We had special wooden chopsticks for the cooking part so as not to melt the plastic ones meant only for eating with. We didn’t have too many condiments – there was a plate of Koon Chun brand Hoisin sauce for each person, and a bottle of Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce for squeezing onto our sauce if we so desired.
As the first plates of food arrived on our table, our waiter suggested that we head to the front of the restaurant to pick out our condiments and sauces.
There was so much to choose from including 5 or 6 different kinds of chili sauce, chili oils, freshly minced garlic, scallions and commercially prepared plum sauce, seafood sauce, and sesame sauce.
The food kept on coming. We chit-chatted nonstop and would take turns sliding a different raw ingredient into the vigorously bubbling broth – always half in the spicy side and half in the non-spicy side.
Sometimes, food would be left in the broth and forgotten. Only to be rediscovered later when scooping for something else. Our family phrase for this was, “Treasure has sunk to bottom.” It was inevitably quoted a few times over the course of our hot pot dinner.
Soon there were so many things mixing in both broths that Sayana accidentally ate a piece of tripe. Unfortunately, that was not the night she would fall in love with it. No matter, I lifted my plate towards her to pass me all her tripe. Waste not.
“Are you going to eat that?” I asked Rupal, pointing my chopsticks at her plate. She had three crab balls sitting very lonely and neglected. I happily transferred them from her plate to my belly.
These were no ordinary crab balls. They were white and round like fish balls on the outside (but probably made of squid based on their texture) but upon biting into one, a surprise filling of crab meat and fish roe awaited me. My favorite item of the night. I could totally go back for more of those.
After everyone’s bellies were full, the hot pot stove would be turned off. The broth was now even better by a thousand-fold having cooked a few platefuls of meat, seafood and vegetable. One meal was finished but others were looming over the horizon. The next morning, we would for sure have that broth accompanied by leftovers from the night before as well as noodles to soak up the broth. Oh yeah baby.
My only disappointment of the meal were the handmade noodles. They were clumpy and didn’t seem to soak up the flavors of the broth like noodles are designed for. Perhaps we soaked them for too long.
The service staff that night were friendly and we were so thankful that they spoke English. They did keep bringing us things we didn’t order but then an inspection of the order form would prove me wrong. This happened 3 times so either I’m a complete buffoon (always a possibility) or their iPad numbers did not correspond with the order sheet.
So don’t just order by number, confirm the item on the printed menu as well.
Oh! Another hot pot restaurant, Xiao Wei Yang just opened up around the corner so will have to go and try that one next to compare the two.
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Delicious Fish Fish Restaurent: Al Barsha 2 across from Mall of the Emirates. Telephone: +971 04 332 5888; Opening hours: Daily 11 am to 1 am. Paid street parking.
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