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Everything you need to know to make Chinese hot pot at home

This Chinese favorite is excellent for any social gathering or party.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

A savory broth filled with meat, seafood, and vegetables, hot pot is a favorite among social gatherings throughout Asia. Although there are countless hot pot styles in Asia, this guide will be focused on Chinese hot pot.

China has a seemingly endless amount of regional hot pot variations. In northern China, lamb is the meat of choice, cooked quickly in a subtly flavored broth. In southern China, hot pots packed with fish and shellfish are a common sight on dining tables. Sichuan hot pot, perhaps the most popular version, features fiery broth filled with mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies, and spicy red oil. There’s even Chinese dry pot, which incorporates hot pot ingredients and spices into a fragrant stir fry.

Because of this huge variety, hot pot is one of the most popular things to eat in Chinese cuisine. And while there are plenty of hot pot restaurants out there, one of the best ways to enjoy hot pot is in the comfort of your home. All you need is the right equipment, the right condiments, and plenty of friends and family.

Hot pot equipment

Jason/Flickr

Like Korean barbecue, Chinese hot pot is also cooked tableside by each diner. The most common device is the

portable butane burner.

These burners are affordable and offer good control of the flame, making boiling or simmering a foolproof endeavor. Keep in mind that these burners don’t come with butane. Canisters must be purchased separately.

Although any pot can be used, it’s important to remember that hot pot is meant to be eaten tableside in a social setting. The height and width of the pot (at least twelve inches across to feed about four to six people) should be suitable for individuals to reach and cook their ingredients. You can purchase pots specially designed for hot pot — these pots will feature a divider in the middle to allow two separate broths (a common combination is a spicy and non-spicy broth).

Another useful tool is a small strainer ladle. Some ingredients take longer to cook, while others can fall apart easily during simmering. Using a strainer allows the diner to cook properly and find the ingredients when done.

Ingredients

For the best hot pot experience, having a good balance of different ingredients is important. The joy of hot pot is interlaced between meat, vegetables, and seafood bites. Thinly sliced meat cooks fast, while ingredients like potatoes or meatballs are more time-consuming. Noodles should be added at the end of the meal to take advantage of the full flavor of the broth.

Broth           

For a simple broth, boil plain water with raw garlic, scallions, and ginger. Japanese kombu kelp is also great, lending a subtle umami flavor to the soup.

For more spice, add a combination of fragrant chili oil, spices, and aromatics. The most convenient way to achieve this is to purchase a ready-made hot pot soup mix at your local Chinese market. Lee Kum Kee, a Hong Kong-based company, has a variety of ready-made broth mixes available, ranging from seafood flavor to spicy Sichuan. Another popular brand is Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, which does a fantastic spicy Sichuan version filled with numbing peppercorns and dried chilies.

Meat

Hideya Hamano/Flickr

The most widely used meats for Chinese hot pot are beef, lamb, and pork. Any local Chinese market will have thinly sliced meat available in the meat aisle. If you want to slice your own, freeze the meat (ideally half-frozen) before slicing. This technique enables thinner slicing.

Meat is cooked either by swishing your slice with chopsticks in the hot broth or by placing it in a small strainer ladle. This technique allows better control over the desired doneness of the meat. You can also add larger quantities of meat into the pot at once, although this method isn’t recommended if using more expensive cuts as it can overcook quickly.

Fat and marbling is key for hot pot meat. For beef, use sliced ribeye steak, brisket, or beef belly for that balance of lean and fat. Leaner cuts like sirloin or eye of round can also work, although diners should take extra care not to overcook them. For pork, use thinly sliced pork belly, shoulder, or loin. Finally, lamb, the meat that separates Chinese hot pot from most Japanese and Southeast Asian versions, is widely eaten in both Sichuan and northern Chinese hot pots and is excellent cooked in a spicy broth. For the best lamb cuts, use either the leg or shoulder.

Animal offal cuts like liver or kidneys are also popular options in Chinese hot pots. More adventurous eaters can purchase these in any Asian market. Be sure to slice them thin to ensure the best texture.

Seafood

HaveA7WillTravel/flickr

Fish is a great addition to hot pot, but it’s important to choose a species with firmer flesh. Flounder, although delicious, is too delicate for hot pot. Instead, firmer fish like salmon, cod, or halibut are better choices.

Any shellfish, ranging from shrimp or crab to clams, will be excellent for hot pot. Chinese hot pot is all about the combination of flavors, so it’s perfectly fine to mix seemingly separate ingredients like shrimp and lamb. Use pork with shellfish if you’re looking for a more classic flavor combination.

A distinct element of Chinese hot pot is fish and shellfish balls. These are made from pounded fish or shellfish molded into balls with a distinct bouncy texture. Some variations are even filled with corn or pork. These seafood balls are available ready-made at any Chinese grocery.

Vegetables

The variety of vegetables used for hot pot is endless. Leafy greens like napa cabbage or chrysanthemum greens are classic additions. Potatoes, taro, lotus roots, and corn are delicious when simmered in broth.

There’s a strategy for hot pot vegetables, which comes down to cooking time and flavor. Root vegetables and corn take longer to cook, so these should be placed into the pot first. Greens are best eaten later in the meal, after some of the meat and seafood, and the quick-cooking greens will benefit from the umami of a well-simmered broth.

Tofu and noodles

Tianjia Liu/flickr

Soy products are a huge part of the Chinese diet, so it should be no surprise that hot pot is a delicious vehicle for these ingredients. Be sure to use firm tofu, as the texture will stand up during cooking. A trick for tofu is to freeze it beforehand, and frozen tofu has a completely different texture (like a sponge) that soaks up the broth when cooked. Just be careful to fully defrost the tofu before cooking. Fried tofu puffs, tofu wedges, and pleasantly chewy tofu skin are also great hot pot additions.

Noodles should be added at the end of a hot pot meal as this allows the noodles to soak up the finished flavor of the soup. Use any Chinese variety of wheat noodles if available, although Japanese udon noodles are a great substitute.

Sauces

One of the best and most fun elements of hot pot is the sauce. The best way to construct your own sauce is to obtain a diverse amount of ingredients. Soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped raw garlic, various hot sauces, chili pastes, rice vinegar, and fresh herbs like cilantro and scallions are all fantastic.

A Chinese favorite is the combination of thick sesame paste and a Chinese barbecue sauce called sa cha jiang. Unlike American barbecue sauce, sa cha jiang is not sweet. Instead, it’s a chunky and spicy sauce that blends seamlessly with sesame paste. Combine the two sauces with a dash of soy, cilantro, and garlic for an all-purpose dipping sauce.

Hot pot etiquette

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Because hot pot is cooked tableside by individual diners, the table setup is very important. The pot should be placed in the center of the table or where all diners can have reasonable access. Plates of ingredients should be evenly divided so all diners can help themselves according to their own preferences.

Etiquette is also important. Use a strainer to find ingredients in the pot instead of fishing for it with your chopsticks. Having separate utensils for handling the raw ingredients (meat especially) can also be helpful. Finally, try not to snag someone else’s ingredients in the pot.

Haidilao hot pot with ingredients.
Haidilao hot pot. haidilao_us/Instagram

How healthy is hot pot?

With so many choices of broths, meat, vegetables, and condiments, the reality is that hot pot can be as healthy as you want it to be. One element that often veers into unhealthy territory is the soup base. Some soup bases, such as those rich in animal fats and high sodium, can be oily and heavy with saturated fat and calories (such as the popular Sichuan-style soup bases). One way to avoid this is to choose a healthier broth made from vegetable broth, aromatic herbs, tomatoes, or even soy milk. To control the amount of salt or fat, it’s best to make the soup base at home instead of buying something from a package that contains preservatives and other ingredients.

Since hot pot is all about customization, a great way to make it healthier is by offering a healthier and wider array of vegetables, fish, and lean meats. Another great hack is to provide plenty of herbs, such as cilantro and scallions. Not only are these great for your sauce, but it’s also healthy.

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Hunter Lu
Hunter Lu is a New York-based food and features writer, editor, and NYU graduate. His fiction has appeared in The Line…
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