It was a dark and stormy night, rather, noontime.
Normally a cause for tourists to be annoyed in July, the cool weather was a blessing for us in beautiful Gruyeres, Switzerland, because it was Fondue Day! And we got Raclette, too! But myMEGusta is getting ahead of herself.
Those of us of a certain age remember fondue parties, with fondue pots at wedding showers seeming to multiply like spoons in the sink.
Cheese fondue, a mélange of cheeses with some white wine, maybe a little mustard seasoning, was the most popular, eaten by dipping hunks of crusty bread on which impatient neophytes would always burn their tongues.
There was beef fondue, now pretty much unheard of, where little pieces of tenderloin were dipped into oil, then dipped in savory sauces. A cholesterol festival, if there ever was one.
And, who doesn’t love chocolate fondue, totally decadent but delish when made with really good, dark chocolate and excellent fruits in season.
Getting back to Switzerland, fondue is a genuine “local” food, not something created for tourists, but something the locals eat relatively rarely, and then, only in cold weather.
Raclette is a close relative, basically baked cheese which oozes and bubbles as it cooks and caramelizes.
It was no surprise to see fondue signs all over the place in Switzerland, but Chinese Fondue mystified myMEGusta (although not enough to stimulate her to order it).
Interestingly, and it makes sense, this dish is a local version of the traditional Mongolian Hot Pot, a simmering bowl of broth, in which thinly cut, tender meat slices are quickly cooked, then dipped in one’s favorite seasonings and sauces. Vegetables also simmer in the broth, maybe noodles as well, and it makes for a healthy, savory dinner. The oddly named Hometown Restaurant on Grand Street in NYC’s Chinatown serves a varied and delicious hot pot menu.
Lovers of Japanese food will recognize the similarity to shabu-shabu, the bubbling broth into which well marbled beef, from Kobe when you can find it, is plunged just long enough to barely cook it, then, like with Hot Pot, dipped in a soy/mirin based sauce. Yummy.
Once, on a trip to visit the snow monkeys of Nagano, Japan, the ryokan’s (inn’s) set dinner included a simmering hot pot (intended for vegetables or noodles or whatever) and beautiful sashimi from the local fresh water, an extremely risky thing for outsiders to eat due to potential parasites and such. Not wanting to cause the innkeepers to lose face, it was imperative to eat the fish. What to do? Sneak it into the hot pot to cook when they were not looking. And it was delicious.
It is fun to think that parallel culinary universes developed in the Alps, in Mongolia, and in Japan, and no Marco Polo legends about why the similarities!