I’m sorry but I passed on the pig’s maw so I can’t tell you what it tasted like or whether it was better boiled or barbecued.
But I didn’t chicken out, so to speak, with chicken hearts. Flung on the barbie, dusted with a few spices and dunked in Korean chilli sauce they tasted juicy and just a little chewy. Well, quite chewy to be honest.
I blame the chef. Me.
Have you ever been in a restaurant, put your knife and fork down in exasperation and said “I can do better myself”?
I have, scores of times.
Tonight I am putting my money where my mouth is for there are places where they let you do the cooking yourself. It’s nothing new. I remember years ago cooking strips of steak on a bake stone in a place on West Street.
The Chinese are into table top cooking with hot pot restaurants: think fondue where the cheese is replaced with boiling broth.
They’re also pretty crazy about Korean barbecues in the same way we are about chicken tikka masala and other curries.
Which is why tonight we are at the Happy Cook on London Road, Sheffield, where you can do both. And if that still doesn’t float your boat they have a chef who does it for you but in the kitchen and not at your table. The Happy Cook, next door to the Vietnamese Saigon 68 – so you’ve got almost all of South East Asian on a plate within a couple of paces – has just celebrated its first birthday. It’s typically Chinese, bright colours and a telly.
But perhaps native Sheffielders have been a little slow to catch on.
Almost all the diners were oriental. Happy Cook doesn’t get too many Europeans and when they do they go for the barbecue, said manager Jamie Choo. “With hot pot cooking they are so-so.”
Not us. I’m a bloke so, naturally, I was going for the barbie. The missus was looking after the hot pot and we agreed to share.
Happy Cook has lots of offers and it took us some time to get our head around them, chiefly because our lovely waitress has very limited English, mostly limited to “you guys.”
So you guys can have 200g each of meat or fish plus a similar amount of vegetables and cook it either way within 80 minutes at a cost of £7.95. Rice is 50p extra.
Or you can go large, so to speak, and eat as much as you like for £14.95 a head for the hot pot, £15.95 for the barbecue. And that is what we did.
While our waitress turned on my barbecue, sunk into the middle of the table, she asked my wife which two broths she wanted. They get boiled in a compartmented pot sitting on a hotplate.
There was a bewildering choice: white, red and porridge (we thought it best not to ask), red and green curry, cheese and tom yum.
My wife wondered what tom yum was. “It’s Thai,” said our waitress. There was a brief pause before she added: “They like it.”
My wife had it as well as green curry.
After that it’s up to you guys.
There was one counter full of ingredients such as slices of beef and lamb, pork belly and pork chop, chicken gizzard, chicken hearts, something which looked and tasted very much like Spam, crab claws, little fish, squid, stuff simply labelled in Chinese characters and pig’s maw.
Now maw is one of those words which apply to different parts of the carcase: it could have meant mouth, throat or stomach. I’m no tripe dodger but this time I passed.
My wife was furtling for goodies for her hot pot and came back with fish fillets, mussels, fish balls and Thai fishcakes. And then, of course, we wanted various dips and there seemed to be endless variations of chilli sauces on offer.
There was one called Happy Sauce. My wife was dubious. “Are you sure, this tastes like satay?” I went to get her the satay sauce. “The Happy Sauce tastes more like satay than the satay does.”
The trouble with hot pot cooking is that you can fish around for ages with your scoops until you find what you’re looking for, then it’s overcooked – but the fish cakes came up brilliantly.
My grill smoked alarmingly at one point and I had to be rescued. I found that once you cook, spice and dunk most things can taste good which is why I recommend Spam in Korean chilli sauce if you’re looking for something new. But barbied lotus root is not worth the effort. Was it fun? Yes. Were we filled? Yes. Did we survive until the next day? Yes.
“I think the cooking was excellent. Give me five,” said my wife, who had done most of it. I’m not the kind of man to argue.
We paid £31.90 for food and £5 for two Tsing Tao beers.