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Food to Make You Horny

Herbal hot pots are the latest food fad.

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Floating amid the meat and cabbage in Cafe Ophelia's lamb-and-goat herbal hot pot, which the menu claims will replenish and fortify us, are slices of astragalus, black dried dates, and tiny red wolfberries.

We're not just having soup, we're self-medicating.

I was tipped off to Cafe Ophelia's herbal hot pots, the hottest fad on the Chinese foodie scene, while browsing through the new Bay Area edition of Carl Chu's Chinese Food Finder, a guide to Chinese restaurants. I contacted Chu to find out about these medicinal soups. So he flew up from Los Angeles to eat one with me.

Cafe Ophelia, which also has branches in Milpitas and Cupertino, is the highest-end restaurant in a Taiwanese strip mall on Warm Springs Boulevard in Fremont. Chu describes the cafe as a "Taiwanese Hong Kong-style coffeehouse," where hip, young crowds gather to sip boba drinks and eat such Asian takes on American cuisine as baked spaghetti and grilled steaks. What makes Cafe Ophelia particularly Taiwanese are the bento boxes and tempuras added to the Asian-American mix, reflecting the Taiwanese affinity for everything Japanese (i.e. not mainland Chinese).

The decorators continued the East-regards-West theme. Blond wood paneling, faux-18th-century European paintings, leatherette chairs, and burnished wood tables come together in a strip-mall approximation of a gentleman's club lounge.

But we haven't come for Cafe Ophelia's smoked salmon and asparagus fried rice; we've come for the hot pots. There are two types, regular and herbal. Each is served in a heavy metal pot set over a Sterno flame, alongside plates of raw vegetables and tofu. The vegetarian hot pot we order is filled with a delicate veggie broth, into which we slide tofu, glass noodles, yellow tomatoes, and other vegetables, dipping the cooked vegetables in a salty, grainy paste.

Cafe Ophelia is one of the first restaurants in the Bay Area to advertise herbal hot pots. The medicinal qualities of foods -- yin vs. yang, heating vs. cooling -- are as basic to the Chinese worldview as our belief in vitamins and carbohydrates, and it's common to add herbs to soups and marinades. It's hard to trace the origins of the current herbal hot pot craze, because you can find them all over China and Taiwan. But in California, these nutraceutical soups first made a big splash in 2003 at a Los Angeles restaurant called Little Sheep.

While the menu is written out in English and Chinese, Chu has to translate the Chinese-only information sheet detailing the effects of Cafe Ophelia's herbal hot pots. There are three distinct broths, all good for "stimulating the genitalia and improving the emotions." The chicken and rice-wine broth is allegedly good for replenishing the blood, stimulating the ovaries, and protecting against colds. The chrysanthemum broth boasts the ability to neutralize toxins, reduce heat, and protect against aging.

The lamb-goat broth, which Chu and I have ordered, is the most complex, fortified with ginseng, danggui (or dong quai), cnidium, and rehmmania. Dates and wolfberries give the cloudy brown soup a soft sweetness, the goat a musky richness. As it bubbles away, we sip the broth with big spoons and pick out fatty chunks of goat meat and chunks of starchy taro from the pot and dip them in a rich dipping sauce of sweetened bean paste and green onions. Sheets of tofu skin, spinach leaves, and thin slices of frozen lamb all go into the pot, then come out when we judge them ready. After a while, our waitress stops by and adds more broth to the pot.

All across Chinese-speaking Asia, wintertime is hot pot time, a family-style meal eaten at home and at specialized restaurants. Different regions specialize in different broths: Northern Chinese hot pots center on lamb and beef, with a hearty soup and sesame-chive dipping sauce. Southern Chinese and Taiwanese hot pots start with subtler broths, incorporating seafood and fish balls in addition to the red meat. Sichuan hot pots sear the cold right out of your body.

Seeking a little of that kind of warmth, one chilly night a week later I follow another Chu recommendation to a Newark Asian-food strip mall to eat at Ninji's Mala Hot Pot Restaurant.

Like the Coriya chain, which also specializes in Taiwanese hot pots, the approach is DIY. At the center of each table is an induction heat pad. You pay $4 a person for the bowl of broth that the waiters set on the burner, then pay for each ingredient that you want to cook in it, ticking off your choices on a sheet of paper. For four people, we order nine items, which is a little overambitious.

As the stainless-steel bowl of broth begins to steam, the table space around it fills with plates of bright-red lamb and beef, frozen so that they could be thinly sliced while raw; blue prawns, heads and tails intact; frilly white book tripe; tortellini-looking fish dumplings; mushrooms and spinach leaves; and my favorite hot-pot ingredient, frozen tofu. The moment the first bubbles appear, we begin to load up both sides of the pot.

For safety's sake, we've hedged our bets, and gotten a yuanyang (combination) hot pot, divided down the middle. According to Chu, these double-duty hot pots were all the rage until herbal hot pots arrived. One half of the yuanyang pot contains barely seasoned, barely flavored chicken stock and the other half a darker broth coated in a slick of vermillion oil. This is the mala part.

The word mala comprises both of the basic Mandarin words for spicy. Ma means numbing-spicy, the fragrant, surprisingly acute prickling sensation produced by Sichuan peppercorns. La refers to chile-spicy, that flush of capsaicin heat that floods the back of your mouth and makes you sniffle and weep.

The first half-hour of our meal is the most painful. Pulling stretchy clear green-bean noodles out of the mala broth coats them in the volatile oils, and makes us all tear up, exhale hotly, and call for bowls of rice. However, as we burn through the oil, the broth mellows, and the spicy side soon makes a wonderful liquid for braising tripe and mushrooms or quickly cooking the sliced lamb. Tofu turns appealingly spongy and chewy in the freezer, and the cubes of frozen tofu we plop into the spicy side soon thaw and soak up the flavorful mala broth.

We use the bland side to best effect for the prawns (watch out, they cook fast), the spinach, and the fish dumplings. However, there's no flavor in the soup, so you have to amble over to the dipping-sauce bar to construct a sauce. Mine: a salty, nutty concoction of sesame paste, scallions, soy, and chopped garlic -- killer on the lamb, beef, and tofu. My friend's: a thinner soy-vinegar-sesame oil sauce that better complements the lighter ingredients.

I found Cafe Ophelia's herbal hot pot more flavorful than either the vegetable or yuenyang hot pots. Did it make me feel stronger and more virile? Not really. Far more replenishing and fortifying was the event, a leisurely way to pass the evening chatting, sipping tea, and watching the pot boil.

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