Eating & Drinking: The most fun you can have on a table top

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The Independent Culture
THE BEST soup I have ever eaten took all night to make. Not only that, it took eight people to make it. It took at least 25 different ingredients, each added in no particular order, a little at a time.

We didn't even leave the pot, but stayed there watching over it every second. In truth, we managed to pass the time chatting and laughing and drinking and eating and generally making a very nice evening of it. In fact, we didn't even know at the time that we were making soup. We thought we were just eating dinner.

It's just that dinner happened to be a Singaporean steamboat, a collection of thinly sliced raw meats, vegetables and fresh seafood all popped into little wire baskets and dunked into a brass pot of steaming stock, which bubbled gently away on a gas burner in the middle of the table. When each bite-sized piece of food was cooked, it was then taken out, put in one's own bowl, and dipped into a gorgeous sauce lurking near by.

It's a great way to eat. It's also a great way to cook. By the end of the evening, the basic stock had been enriched by countless ceremonial dunkings of liver, pork, bok choi cabbage, fish balls, prawns, chilli, bitter melon, shiitake mushrooms, bean curd, spring onions, and god knows what else. Our host then tipped a plate of cooked rice vermicelli noodles into the pot and heated them through. The resulting noodle soup tasted fantastic, with a full, rounded quality that still managed to be fresh, light and balanced.

It's official. The most fun you can have on a table top is to cook on it. This is table top dancing the whole family can enjoy. It is also a theatre sport for your friends, as each person actively participates in the creation of their own meal. The excitement of sitting down at the prepared table, the fun of dipping and swooping and eating, the passing of plates and spoons, the furtive checking to see if you have missed out on anything, the fighting over whose basket belongs to whom (when in doubt, yours is the closest), all add up to a strong bonding experience for a generation used to individual servings of burgers and fries.

It started for me in Singapore, at the dear departed original Singapore Satay Club, a mad, smoky open air clutter of tables and stalls stretching out over reclaimed land near the Raffles Hotel; now a neo-forest of skyscraper shopping centres and hotels. So besotted was a friend with the steamboat concept that he returned home and immediately drilled a small hole in his beautiful dining table to accommodate the tubing from a table-top burner leading to a large gas cylinder below. This was just before he found out about those cute little Japanese and Korean tabletop stoves that run on even cuter gas cartridges slipped into the unit's side.

Scary? No, it's not scary at all. Even an unhandy man like me has yet to blow himself up. It's not for lack of trying, either. Thanks to my trusty Sam Ho I've been to Japan via sukiyaki, shabu-shabu and yose-nabe, the Japanese answer to bouillabaisse. I've been to Sichuan via a chilli- laden oil and stock hot pot. I've been to Korea via bulgogi (barbecued beef) and haemul chongol (seafood stew). I've even been to Switzerland via a fondue, but I may not get back there again for some time.

And the best thing? I don't know where you will be this New Year's Eve as the millennium bug strikes, the power cuts out, the alarm bells go off, and the bewildered mill around darkened clock towers, but I'll be at home, hunched over a bubbling gas-powered steamboat of prawns and lobster.

By cooking your own food to the exact time you want it, exactly where you want it, you can feel completely in control of every aspect of your meal, and therefore (it's a short jump) your destiny. You can send your compliments to the chef, but you have to accept the praise yourself. Alternatively, you can blame the chef for evaporating the stock, or overcooking the fish balls, but as you have to ultimately accept the responsibility yourself, I wouldn't.