Ode: The Sauce Station at The Bronze Empire
You’re just a tad overwhelmed when you first step up to the table, with its stack of little bowls and two long rows of stainless-steel tureens. You’ve already taken a deep breath after navigating The Bronze Empire’s massive hot pot menu — settling on one of the broth bases and ordering from the myriad of meats, veggies, and other boilables. It wasn’t easy narrowing down your choices; settling on the mushroom combo, going for the magic noodles over the cellophanes then adding udon to the order; picking and choosing select greens that should go well with the shabu shabu lamb and sliced brisket you decided on. Did you order enough? Will it be too much?
But then you’re at the sauce station and it’s analysis paralysis all over again, that array of possibilities. It’s all there — sweet, savory, salty, buttery, nutty, crunchy, fishy. Do you start with soy sauce or hoisin? A little of both? What about the spicy elements like the “special chili sauce” or the shacha with its seafood undertones? Of course you’ll add a drop or five of sesame oil. But maybe the sesame paste would be better?
There’s no shame in shrugging your shoulders and taking cues from the “Signature Sauce Combos” recipes on the wall, but even they don’t tell you the proportions of each element to ladle into your dish.
So you eyeball your custom sauce instead, wanting something that doesn’t end up just being a mishmash of every delicious thing on the station. And when you finally get your wets sorted, it’s time to add the aromatics — crushed garlic and fresh cilantro, sliced scallions, fried onions. And maybe a shake of chili powder for additional spiciness.
You look dubiously at your little dish, the sesame oil swimming in long bubbles along the oyster sauce, fried onion bits floating amidst the green onion shards. You give it a sniff and it seems like it should be okay…
By the time you’re back at the table, your bowl of broth is simmering nicely on your personal burner, almost ready for its first ingredients. Servers are laying out your raw proteins along with dishes of sliced vegetables and tofu. You give your sauce a stir with your chopsticks and then put them in your mouth, stopping time for a moment to assess.
You smack your lips to let some air in, activating your olfactory senses. And shrug again. Yeah, that should be good.
And then it’s time to start hot potting, probably overcooking some ingredients because you’re dropping them into the simmer all at once. Chaos reigns as you grab up stuff with your little strainer basket and put it into a bowl, then use the chopsticks to dip bites into your sauce, drizzling broth all over the table and splashing it onto your shirt. Or maybe you forgot about the basket and used the tongs to drop a baby bok choy into your sauce dish. Or you chopsticked the raw meat instead of using the tongs and now you’re wondering if you should leave them in the broth for a few minutes to sanitize. Everyone around you is doing the same thing — passing plates, splashing chunks and slices from their pots into their bowls, knocking the sauce dish and catching it before it goes over, dripping wet noodles onto the tablecloth.
But when you do trawl your cooked food through your customized, self-serve sauce dish, you stop for a sec to decide if you managed it well, chewing and slurping thoughtfully, looking for the hint of sesame or the crunch of the onions.
Yeah… you crushed it.