Hotpot (火锅) is a favorite among the Chinese. It’s so ubiquitous in China that it can be found just about everywhere – from the very north in Mongolia (where it’s believed to have originated) all the way to the humid south. Each region does it a little differently: Beijing is known for lamb hotpot in a copper pot, Sichuan for their signature numbing-spicy broth, and the Cantonese region for fresh seafood.
But in all versions, hotpot is essentially the cooking of raw ingredients into a pot of boiling water at the table. If that sounds boring, then don’t worry, just wait for the pictures!
Hotpot has been a long favorite of mine as well. My family traditionally eats a large hotpot meal every Christmas and I look forward to it all year long. We always make it ourselves. We gather the raw ingredients at the Asian grocery store and boil our broth on a portable electrical burner on the table. In the States, Chinese hotpot restaurants still seem to be hard to come by.
So of course, I frequently went out for hotpot during my two months in China. We met up with a lot of family + friends during our time there, and hotpot was always a popular choice for a gathering. We’ve tried quite a few different varieties (even individual pots and dry kinds) but they all come down to one thing: a fun, delicious social meal experience.
Just some of the different varieties of hot pot we had:
I started this post as a restaurant review for Lao Gao Jiu in Shanghai (what I believe was the best hotpot I had while in China), but decided to focus more on writing about this fun meal experience in general and maybe even give you tips on how you can enjoy hotpot from home!
(All photos from this point on are from Lao Gao Jiu in Shanghai.)
Most hotpot restaurants offer a split pot where you can choose two different soup bases to cook the food in. Most people choose half spicy and half plain stock. This is great because the wimps (errr… I mean, those who are intolerant to spice) don’t have to miss out on the fun.
At Lao Gao Jiu, there are four different soup bases!
Chicken stock works well for the plain broth (cook it with some veggies if you want a little bit more flavor), but for the spicy broth, you may need to hunt down a pre-mix pack. Lee Kum Kee‘s is a popular one for at-home hotpot. Just be careful and only put in a little at a time until you get to your desired spice level!
The food ingredients
Now it’s time to select the food! You want variety here. At the very least, people will get one meat, one seafood, one tofu, one veggie, and one noodle dish to design a complete meal.
My absolute favorite meat for cooking in a hotpot is thinly sliced lamb. Lamb meat is super tender and soaks up the flavor of the broth nicely. Sliced fatty beef is a close second. I don’t prefer pork or chicken as I feel like they are not as tender.
Besides meat, seafood is also a huge component to any well-rounded hotpot meal! Some people like fresh seafood (especially in the Cantonese region) like shrimp, lobster, clams, etc, but I just prefer fresh homemade fish/shrimp balls (and I’m cheap).
Make sure to get a variety of veggies, mushrooms, and tofus. Usually, I like to cook meats + seafood in the spicy broth and veggies in the plain broth in order to balance it out.
And lastly, because this is China, most people pick a noodle to complete the meal. There’s plenty to choose from in this department too, from hand-pulled noodles to vermicelli to glass mung bean noodles.
At home tip: This part of getting the ingredients is easy. The above is a guideline, but basically, the rule is: whatever the hell you want to eat! Just make sure that the meat is sliced paper thin, so they will cook fast. Fishballs can be found in the frozen section of just about any Asian store.
The dipping sauce
All this food gets cooked in the soup of your choosing (for me, always the spicy one!), but you don’t eat them straight out of the pot! A dipping sauce is crucial, especially if you’re not fond of spice. The dipping sauce adds an extra layer of flavor and also cools off the spice a little.
The most popular hotpot dipping sauce for the Chinese is sesame paste. It complements spices and meat wonderfully. Some places will just give you a bowl of sesame paste, but some places will have a condiments buffet for you to create your own sauce!
There are a couple dozen different condiments to mix and match. There are the staples like sesame paste, sesame oil, garlic, and green onion. And there are more interesting ones like XO sauce, black bean sauce, and fermented tofu sauce. There are seasonings like chili flakes, roasted garlic bits, sugar, and even MSG if you so desire.
Since I prefer staying true to the traditional way, I only use sesame paste, sesame oil, and generous spoonfuls of minced garlic, cilantro, and green onion.
After you’ve made your dipping sauce and got the food all set up and the broth bubbling hot, it’s time to start cooking! Most of this cooks very fast (less than a minute) so keep an eye on it. At this point, I’m always enjoying my food so much that I forget to take pictures of the ingredients cooking in the hot pot, but I think you get the idea.
At home tip: My family always makes an easy sauce with watered down sesame paste, minced garlic, chopped green onions, and cilantro. This is the most basic one.
Some final hot pot tips + rules:
- Use a communal chopstick to pick up raw meat, since obviously you don’t want to touch raw meat with the ones you put in your mouth.
- You should have some strainers to fish the stuff out of the pot, if you’re one of those who are icky about dipping used chopsticks into a communal pot. But in my experience, people don’t give a crap if you fish with your own chopsticks.
- Hotpot can be a greasy affair, especially if you are a fan of the spicy broth (which is loaded with oil) and the sesame oil dipping sauce. Warning (and I speak from experience): the aftermath may not be pleasant.
- When eating at a hotpot place in Beijing or Shanghai, except to pay around 100RMB/person, or US$16.
My hotpot recommendations:
Beijing: Haidilao is a very popular chain of hotpot restaurants. Almost any local will recommend it. The food quality and selection of dipping choices are very decent, but what makes it a cut above the rest is the exceptional service. Dining there is a very enjoyable experience.
Address: There are several locations in Beijing. You can find all of them here.
Shanghai: Chongqing Lao Gao Jiu is the best we had in China. The selection of ingredients is massive and the quality is amazing. Most of the pictures in this post was taken from this restaurant. And you also get four soup bases instead of just two. ;)
Address: 1 Wanhangdu Lu, 2/F, near Yuyuan Lu, Exit. 1, Line 2 & 7, Jing’an Temple Station
Have you had Chinese hotpot before? Would you try it at home?
P.S. We are in Europe now for the summer!! Writing this is making me miss Asian food already. But still plenty more of Asian deliciousness coming up on the blog!