Everything You Need to Know to Master Hot Pot
Regional Chinese food -- from X’ian-style noodles to Shanghainese soup dumplings -- is finally getting its well deserved time in the spotlight. And with that has emerged a cult obsession with a brilliant and bubbly contender: hot pot, or huǒ guō (火锅). Here is everything you need to know about mastering the hot pot experience.
What is Hot Pot?Hot pot is less of a dish than it is an experience, encapsulating the communal dining ethos that so many Western restaurants have only recently taken on. Think of it as an adaptation of the stone soup fairy tale: you team up with a group of friends to cook an array of ingredients—thinly sliced meats, mushrooms, head-on shrimp, Chinese lettuces, fresh noodles, and more—in a single pot of simmering, seasoned broth heated on an induction burner or electric range. Once cooked to your liking, you dip it in the sauce of choice and eat it. Rinse and repeat until extremely full.
Where does it come from?There are as many variations on hot pot as there are households in China, but there are definitely distinct regional styles. The original, introduced to East Asia thousands of years ago by the Mongolian Empire, was a simple broth served with horse meat and mutton. (The apocryphal story describes it as a dish eaten on-the-go in the helmets of Mongolian soldiers.) As their cultural influence spread, so did the hot pot, taking on myriad forms in Northern China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
What is included?The there are three basic components to Hot Pot: broth, dipping ingredients, and sauces.
A single hot pot restaurant in the United States will often offer several broths to choose from, though indecisive folks can sometimes opt for a combination served in the same pot with a metal divider. The most well-known style is a basic cloudy broth made from chicken, ginger, goji berries, and other aromatics. My personal favorite is the bold and numb-spicy Chongqing variant, which is chock-full of Sichuan peppercorns, red chillies, preserved mustard greens, and basically anything else you’d typically find in a Sichuanese chef’s spice rack. You could opt for a savory mushroom broth, sweet-and-sour tomato, or, in some places, even a coconut-infused seafood tom kha variant.
As for the hot pot ingredients themselves, restaurants will usually offer a good mixture of thin-sliced meats—from pork belly to lamb shoulder to filet mignon—meatballs, vegetables, noodles, dumplings, and rice cakes that you can order a la carte. Sometimes they’ll offer combination platters with a good balance of proteins and vegetables. For example, Tang Hot Pot in New York City offers a beautiful-sounding “Sichuan Adventurer” set that includes delicacies like chicken gizzards, Asian swamp eel, beef tripe, crown daisy leaves, vermicelli noodles, and enoki mushrooms. But that’s the fancy stuff. You also can’t go wrong with ordering a pyramid of semi-frozen shaved ribeye, a clutch of hand-cut noodles, and bok choi and calling it a day.
Most places will offer a variety of sauces to dip your cooked ingredients in, and you’re welcome to use them or not. Some might even offer a whole DIY station with individual elements for you to mix, including minced cilantro, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and black vinegar, with suggestions for newbies. For many hot pot fans, the dipping sauce is a very personal thing, so if you want that extra scoop of garlic, fly that freak flag. Here’s a tip: if you see chive flower sauce on the menu, order it. It’s packed full of umami and tastes amazing with everything.
Do you eat it with anything else?Drink lots of cold beer or báijiǔ (白酒, or the Chinese sorghum liquor that will knock you on your ass) as you go. Accordingly, the typical side dishes are the type that are great with drinking alcohol: mixed nuts, spicy smashed cucumber salad, toasty scallion pancakes, spring rolls, or mixed mushroom salads. The salads are an especially great palate cleanser when you’re feeling overwhelmed with your hot pot’s intense spices. And for dessert, consider it your cool down period: people generally finish with fresh sliced fruit or ice cream dishes.
How do you eat it?There are a few things to keep in mind as you and your friends dig in. First, cook your ingredients gradually and try to pace it to your eating speed. Remember that the food will be hot when you pull it out, so keep things leisurely, and make sure you wait for the soup to get boiling again between batches. Definitely use the handheld baskets or designated long cooking chopsticks to retrieve your food so you’re not using the same utensils to eat and cook.
Different foods have different cook times. For example, mushrooms might take 5-8 minutes while thin slices of meat will overcook and become tough if boiled longer than 10 seconds. The good rule of thumb is to let hearty, tough greens ride in the pot to soften up while you dip and eat smaller, quicker ingredients. If you’re not sure about your cooking skills, just invite a knowledgeable friend who can take the lead!
Occasionally, your server may bring over a pitcher of broth and replenish your pot with it. If this happens, don’t panic! They’re just rebalancing the flavors and making sure you’re not just sucking down pure spicy oil with your noodles.
What are some rules I should remember?Hot pot is very much a communal, social meal, so respect the commons. Sharing is the name of the game: dole out meatballs to your friends, don’t bogart the shrimp paste, don’t double-dip, and make sure you pour out báijiǔ shots for the whole table. If you want to be really Asian about it, the fierce battle over who gets to pay the check, is a must.
Is it expensive?Since hot pot is a group activity, it’s pretty cost effective. Some places will offer a free, refillable base broth and only charge you for the stuff you put in or spice upgrades, and that’s going to be pretty reasonable: It works out to about $18 per person for the food if you plan to get stuffed. Even the places that charge for soup will probably only charge about $10-$15 for the broth that you’d all share anyway.
Of course, there are high-end hot pot places that will charge a premium. A restaurant like HaiDiLao, a Sichuanese import, is famous for their great service and offers all house-made and organic ingredients, so expect to pay $40-$50/person. We’ll probably see more like these as more restaurants catering to rich Chinese newcomers open up in the U.S.