When I was a kid we had some awesome neighbours who would invite us around for Steamboat. She would place a simmering pot of stock in the middle of the table and we'd drop pieces of meat, vegetables and noodles into the soup and wait for them to cook. Then we would all fight over who put the prawn in and who got stuck with the wilted green vegetables.
Technically, everyone gets their own half pot of soup, because they are cleverly divided in two and sit on a small butane fuelled burner, so that the soup stays hot throughout the meal. When you arrive you choose from seven soup bases: chicken, curry, satay, hot and spicy, tom yum, Chinese medicinal and century egg and coriander. I chickened out (literally) and got the plain chicken broth. My more adventurous sister ordered the Tom Yum. I would have loved to see what the century egg soup looked like.
The steamboat is actually less romantic looking than you might imagine
You then head up to the buffet to choose your meats and vegetables. You can go back as many times as you like, so you can make each trip a different theme: seafood-and-noodles, meat-and-leafy-Asian-greens, tofu-and-dumplings, things-you-don't-know-which-part-of-the-animal-it-comes-from.
For my first trip I piled my plate modestly with some pumpkin (probably the vegetable I least expected at an Asian restaurant), smoked salmon, coral trout fillet, egg noodles, a prawn wonton and some of those round fish balls that are very difficult to eat with chopsticks. Using a special spoon I dropped some of the pieces into my soup and a few minutes late began scooping them back out again onto my plate. In goes more raw food, out comes your dinner, cooked exactly the way you like (once you figure out what you're doing anyway).
This is the 'before' picture... a plate of fresh seafod and meat ready for steaming
It's fun, it's fast, it's messy and it's addictive. I watched fellow diners pile their plates high with tripe (yep, plenty of that available) and dump it all in their soup at once. Others took a single piece of everything and cooked it one at a time. It's tempting to go hard and go fast when you see the dazzling array of goodies available, but I would recommend going slowly. By the end of the night your soup is full of all sorts of extra flavours, if you can fit it in that is.
There are over 70 items to add to your soup including seafood (prawns, crab, scallops, fish, oysters, mussels and squid), meat (thinly sliced pork, lamb, chicken and beef), wontons and noodles (rice and egg), vegetables (cabbage, Asian greens, pumpkin), tofu (plain, fried), eggs, tripe and a variety of fish and meat balls. I admit there were a number of things that I did not recognise and was not brave enough to try, but I don't think I could have physically fit any more in anyway, not after six trips back to the buffet.
Over the course of the dinner, the waiters will come around and top up your soup. There are also bowls of chilli and fresh garlic and herbs which you can add to your stock, plus a number of condiments and sauces to add to your cooked meal.
The fixed price is not just limited to the all-you-can-eat buffet, but also includes drinks (soft drinks, Asian fruit drinks and beer) and dessert. Dessert includes fresh fruit, cake, coconut jelly and sago which was so tasty we managed to squeeze in a second helping.
Steamboat is a lot of fun. If you don't mind looking a little foolish when you spill soup down your front, or can't find that oyster you just KNOW you put in, it could be a perfect date night, as you bump chop-sticks in the soup and get all hot and steamy together. But whether you are there with your family, friends or someone you grabbed off the street, steamboat is an interactive meal. You get involved with what you are eating and how it is cooked. And it helps if you like your dining companions too, because it's difficult not to get involved with what they are eating too.