Cold Day, Hot Pot
 

We'd spent the afternoon watching people swirl around a frozen lake on all manner of contraptions - ice skates, bikes, trikes, sleds, bumper cars - in the shadow of a bell-shaped white temple.

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It was cold, so cold, and my fingers were turning a lovely shade of violet. We left the park, wandered through outdoor markets of mounded meats and winter vegetables, dashed across several busy streets, waved back at a variety of excited Beijingers. Then appeared the ornate gated entrance of our destination - a hot pot restaurant that promised to cater to newbie foreigners like us.

Inside, we studied the picture menu carefully, then ordered at random, pointing wordlessly at platters of lamb, thick rice noodles, nameless green vegetables, dry sesame biscuits. Plate after plate arrived, cantilevered precariously on top of one another in order to take up as little room as possible.

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We ordered pickled radishes, sampled them - a satisfying crunch - and then reconsidered, leaving the plate of perfectly piled vegetables to the side. The thick, steaming broth arrived via tea pot, poured into candle-warmed pans and then seasoned with a second spicy broth. We eagerly chopsticked strips of lamb into the pot and swirled them around for a moment, peering through the broth at the pinkish meat. Shrugging, we decided they were ready, and went to eat them, whereupon our horrified waiters swooped in, violently motioning for us to hold off until the broth boiled. Apparently raw lamb is not in vogue. The rice noodles proved nearly impossible to eat - thick, translucent and flavorless, but above all incredibly slippery. We hadn't yet been through the sink-or-swim chopstick course that is any meal in Japan, so this mostly consisted of noodles flopping around like baby seals, managing only infrequently to land in the broth.

Every time our broth got low, our waiters were at the ready, tea pots in hand. We stayed late into the afternoon, until we were alone in the rich red room, interrupted in our feasting only by the occasional rush of a waiter flying past.