It would be unbecoming for a restaurant reviewer to make nana-ish comparisons to food that is often better – and more affordable, as my own nana might add – cooked at home. But these are my thoughts whenever I visit crowd-pleasing hot pot places that proliferate in Phnom Penh. Previous visits to tabletop soup restaurants – even those of the soup maestro, Suki – have all led me to believe that too many cooks do indeed spoil the broth.
For Chinese New Year, however, I found myself sitting at yet another group-soup spread: this time at Toul Tom Pong institution De Yue Lou Restaurant. As the Year of the Snake raised its head, the mood inside the cavernous Chinese restaurant was lively and thick with table chatter. Dozens of families were out for a night of steaming huo guo (fire pot) washed down with Chinese lager and rice wine.
As we were led through back room after back room, I spied the raw ingredients of the soup, looking limp and disarranged, on crowded trays.
Despite containing blazing gas-stove fitted tables, our dining room had the unappetising whiff and chill of a stale fridge. This gave rise to my other, more wimpy, concern about communal soup: hygiene.
Is it safe to be double-dipping strips of raw beef into a shared broth bath? And what about the frozen pork balls?
Of course it’s safe, my fellow diners said with polite forbearance. The boiling soup is like antiseptic for your chopsticks.
Here, have a shot of rice wine, they urged.
In China, my host told me, you share your hot pot with whichever stranger sits down at your table.
With bamboo shoots, chilli, goji berries, leek and Sichuan peppercorns toiling away in the current of the simmering broth, the tasty soup base at De Yue Lou does have a bracing herbal flavour. Once the fridge-like air conditioning has been turned down, fragrant steam is released with each ladle from the central pot.
Like Chinese traditional medicine, the soup table is governed by yin and yang. Yin is a milder, pale golden broth flavoured with fish carcasses and the sharply tangy Sichuan pepper. Yang, the fiery masculine element, glistens in the separated pot and is crowded with small floating chillis and a slick of bright red oil.
In China, the yang flavoured broth is “five to ten times” spicier, my host informed me. Had Yang been any hotter, I might have breathed fire with my next shot of rice wine.
As per usual steamboat experience, an argument over what to cook first quickly arose. Six out of nine of us believed in strategised order, the others called for a vegetable free-for-all.
Cubes of fried tofu and processed pork balls were frozen rock hard, so they had to go in immediately; then yellow wheat noodles, chewy shitake mushrooms and the strips of tenderised beef, which were uncertainly submerged until a grey-pink colour by table members.
Beside the soup pot, side dishes of soft tofu, fresh chilli, sesame oil and heaped chopped garlic are mashed together to make a pungent condiment for the soup, which was already very tasty – more so than others I’ve eaten.
The crunchy, spongy and chewy texture contrasts that are so vital to Chinese cooking are surely the most enjoyable thing about the steamboat: the noodle-like squishiness of stringy Enoki mushroom (which is left to cook a little in the bowl), the dense and crunchy grid of lotus, springy pork balls, slippery ‘mouse ear’ mushrooms, each are given room to shine, in an ever-richer cauldron of never-ending soup.
When the bill came to around $8 each for our table of nine (including rice wine and beer), I had quite literally put aside my beef with the hot pot phenomenon, and joined the crowd of happy diners, sitting back like so many cooks, spoilt by broth.
Something Restaurant, Monivong Blvd, Toul Tom Pung.