Everything You Need to Know About Chinese Hot Pot
Etiquette, history and how to make it at home (so easy)
Hot pot is a delicious and fun communal eating experience that is thought to hail from Eastern China. Typically, it involves a huge bowl of broth placed in the center of a table that is heated there via induction or flame. Ingredients ranging from raw vegetables to thinly sliced meats are also placed on the table (or sometimes on a nearby cart) so that diners can submerge them in the broth to cook before eating.
While it is certainly a popular Chinese dish that you’ll stumble upon when traveling in China, it isn’t terribly common elsewhere. This is a shame because while it sounds a bit like fondue, it’s far more glorious. We’ve love it so much that we even figured out how to make hot pot easily at home (details below).
Table of Contents
What Goes in Hot Pot
The answer to what goes in hot pot is entirely up to you. It starts with a soup base that can be prepared with a mild stock. Or, you can dial up the spicy in a manner that will blow your top off. I recommend somewhere in between.
Common hot pot ingredients include various types of thinly-sliced meats (chicken, pork, beef, lamb), vegetables (leafy greens, lettuce, pak choy, mushrooms), noodles, dumplings, firm tofu and seafood including shellfish and fish balls.
When preparing hot pot at home, we typically take a look around the Asian market to see which pre-sliced meats look good (or are on sale) and go from there.
How to Eat Hot Pot
When everyone is sharing the same communal hot pot bowl, best practices include the following:
- Take turns.
- Try to eat what you’ve placed in the bowl (it’s easy to lose track of food when it’s simmering, of course) to the best of your ability.
- If the bowl is split so that it can handle spicy on one side and a mild broth on the other, do not cross dunk. A mild broth can get spicy really quickly and vice versa.
- Drop hot pot ingredients in with chopsticks. Fish them out with chopsticks or hot pot spoons.
- It is easy to overcook (though frankly a lot of meat can handle this) thinly-sliced meats so you may want to simply swish it around quickly with your chopsticks instead of dropping it in.
Each diner may also elect to prepare a little bowl of dipping sauce for themselves, if available. The idea is to dunk the newly cooked hot pot ingredients into the sauce before eating. Some hot pot restaurants have make-your-own sauce bars while others do not. A typical combination is sesame oil with a little bit of soy sauce.
Some of the photos in this post are from a popular chain called Faigo that we ate at in Beijing. Faigo’s claim to fame is that everyone has their own mini hot pot which allows each person to pick their own broth style. While very cool, this isn’t common.
Hot pot pairs very well with beer. And, if available, an order of winter melon to help cool and soothe an extra spicy mouthful.
The History of Chinese Hot Pot
Hot pot is thought to have originated in Mongolia 800-900 years ago. The primary ingredient originally was meat (including mutton and horse), and the broth was not spicy. Hot pot subsequently spread throughout China, where distinct regional variations developed and persist to this day.
Chongqing Hot Pot
Perhaps the most famous variation is Chongqing hot pot, distinguished by the extremely spicy Sichuan peppers added liberally to the broth. It can be almost impossibly hot for some unwitting (or unduly bold) first-timers.
When living in Hong Kong, I saw a TV show that explained why such spicy hot pot developed in Chongqing. One of China’s largest cities (which used to be known as Chungking in the West), Chongqing is located in Sichuan province at the confluence of several large rivers that have been a center of trade and commerce in China for centuries. The poorly-paid dock workers wanted a cheap and hearty food to keep them working and warm while at the often cold and wet docks. Making the hot pot broth so extremely spicy was a cheap way of masking that the ingredients these subsistence manual laborers used were not the highest quality and sometimes nearly-spoiled. Or so the story goes, anyway.
Sichuan Hot Pot
Sichuan province in China is famous generally for its spicy cuisine. Sichuan hot pot is also synonymous with being hot and spicy. Coincidentally, we recently watched a popular American TV show recently profiling the foods of Sichuan province, in which one local Chinese diner in a hot pot restaurant in Chengdu (a Chinese city perhaps most famous internationally for pandas) described enthusiastically hot pot’s effect on him as, “like sexy girls dancing on my tongue.” Conversely, a young Chinese woman dining at a nearby table, whose eyes seemed to be watering, described her tongue as numb. That’s pretty much the spectrum of reaction to Sichuan hot pot. If ever in Chengdu, you must absolutely seek out hot pot. Here’s a snippet of what our set up looked like at the famous HuangCheng LaoMa near the opera on Qintai Road.
Japanese Hot Pot
Hot pot has further spread throughout Asia and is popular in many Asian countries to this day (albeit under different names), including notably in Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan. As in China, many different varieties have also been developed in Japan. They have several names. But two are more well known in America than others: sukiyaki and shabu-shabu. Sukiyaki typically uses a shallow iron pot, and in that sense is distinct from typical Chinese hot pot. Shabu-shabu is much more similar to Chinese hot pot. Thinly sliced meats and vegetables are dipped in a hot broth seasoned with kelp and then swished back and forth several times (to cook) before being eaten. The swishing sound allegedly made in this process is what gives the dish its name, apparently. The food is typically dipped in a sesame seed sauce before being eaten.
How to Make Hot Pot
Perhaps because shabu-shabu is more popular than hot pot in America, if you are looking to buy the equipment necessary to make hot pot at home, search online under both shabu-shabu and hot pot.
It’s our personal experience, having lived in Hong Kong and traveled extensively throughout China, that Chinese people make hot pot at home by placing a large bowl on a portable, electric induction cooktop at the center of their dining table. It’s as simple as that.
Whether you then eat it with metal or wood chopsticks, use spoons and strainers and/or have little bowls for individual dipping sauces is all optional. There are several small electric, all-in-one hot pot/shabu-shabu appliances available for purchase online in America. However, we bought:
- a portable induction cooktop
- an induction-compatible, divided bowl
- hot pot spoons (or shabu-shabu skimmers)
Be sure that the size of your pot does not exceed the size of the cooking surface of your induction cooktop. What is induction? In a sentence, induction uses magnetism to heat things rather than thermal conduction from say, a flame or an electric heating element. It’s a more efficient way to cook, is easy to clean, and in the context of eating communal hot pot when one reaches over the cooktop to cook food, is also probably a little safer.
Our favorite soup bases are by Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot as they make both a not-too-hot and a mild base. It’s been our experience that hot pot ingredients, including the very thinly sliced meats, Asian vegetables, and other soup bases, are readily available for purchase at local Asian markets.
Making hot pot at home is actually very easy (and, frankly, inexpensive).
Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot
Our favorite hot pot restaurant in San Diego is Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot.
(Part of the reason why we know quite a bit about this popular Chinese food is that my husband’s law firm did some finance work for Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot when we lived in Hong Kong.)
Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot is a famous chain of hot pot restaurants throughout much of China. They expanded to several American cities, focused on the West Coast, several years ago. The food is very good and it’s impeccably clean, which should go without saying but doesn’t always (unfortunately) with hot pot restaurants in America.
For an American with a casual, maybe even one-time, interest in Hot Pot, the word “Mongolian” in the name is, for all intents and purposes, meaningless. There is no large portrait of Genghis Khan sitting triumphantly on a horse hanging on the wall. Instead, they offer an extensive menu of a la carte food options that go way beyond mutton (horse meat is not an option). Diners choose between spicy broth, non-spicy broth, or a bowl with a divider in the middle enabling both kinds.
Our personal recommendation for the novice is their weekday lunch special ($11.95 as of this writing). You only have to choose what kind of broth you prefer, and what type of sliced meat (beef or pork, among several options) you want. Everything else (including a selection of pre-sliced Asian vegetables and noodles) is brought to the table on an individual plate for each person. They do serve beer and wine, as well as other Asian spirits. But it is also family-friendly.
And now you probably know more about hot pot than most people.
Where do you like to eat hot pot?