A giant, bubbling pot of stew sits in the middle of a table. Colorful plates of sliced marble meat, leafy greens, fish balls, enoki mushrooms, daikon, and vermicelli are laid out. Several chopsticks fish for food within the boiling broth as friendly conversations and laughter fill the room. The food goes on a three-stop journey: it’s first cooked in the pot, then dipped in sauce, before finally reaching the mouth of a happy camper. This is how you eat Chinese hotpot, or huo guo, which literally means “fire pot.”
But what exactly is hotpot? Since virtually anything can be boiled in the soup, it’s more of a cooking method than it is a dish with specific ingredients. However, it’s best to view hotpot as an experience. It’s a communal activity where friends and family can talk, laugh, and enjoy delicious food at the same time. Hotpot, in essence, is what you make of it!
Given how big China is, it’s not a surprise that hotpot varies from region to region. Sichuan hotpot is notoriously spicy with its numbing Sichuan peppercorns and chilli flakes sprinkled in a red soup base. Don’t be embarrassed if your face is flushed and you’re sweating buckets while eating. Pro tip: have some cold ice tea or milk on hand! If you’re a seafood lover, Cantonese hotpot may be more up your alley: ingredients like shrimp, fish, or clams are cooked in a mild but refreshing seafood broth.
Another important element of hotpot is the dipping sauce. The options are wide-ranging and customizable to your palate. There’s sesame oil, peanut sauce, Shacha sauce (Chinese barbeque sauce), soy sauce… Additionally, you can toss in cilantro, garlic, scallions, crushed peanuts—you get the point. There are no rules in the game of hotpot!
Okay, I know I just said there aren’t any rules. But there are some guidelines you can follow to ensure the best hotpot experience.
- Here are some classic ingredients if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the options: sliced lamb and beef, tofu skin, fish balls, luncheon meat, napa cabbage, spinach, vermicelli noodles, enoki mushrooms, and daikon radish (Still a lot of options…but variety is key!)
- Can’t seem to pick up the food with your chopsticks? Use a strainer scoop!
- Cook the food gradually. Don’t try to put everything in the pot at once because meats, vegetables, and noodles have different cooking times.
- Don’t eat it alone— Hotpot tastes better when eaten with friends and family.
Cultural Comparison: Many Asian countries have their own version of hotpot. In Japan, it’s called Shabu Shabu while Vietnamese hotpot is called lẩu. Have you tried any of these? Which one’s your favorite?