China Eats: A Hot Pot Primer

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: April 19th, 2011 | Updated: July 17th, 2014 | Comments
hotpot_shanghai

An eating tradition with over 1,000 years of history in China, steam-filled hot pot restaurants abound in many different guises throughout the Middle Kingdom. Here, Sascha Matuszak introduces you to the ones you're most likely to meet when you travel in China, and a few of their foreign friends.>>>

If you have lived in China for more than a couple of years, then hot pot (huǒguō, 火锅, in Chinese) to you will always be the spicy, red mala version from Sichuan. Some of you China vets might mention the northern style—the vat of lamb meat with the bell-like chimney rising out of the middle of the pot—and I commend you for the breadth of your culinary knowledge. But for a lot of people out there, hot pot can mean all manner of things cooked up in a  communal pot of simmering liquid. Louisiana-style boiling gumbo? Swiss-style fondue? Bubbling cauldrons of lemongrass and shrimp with kaffir lime and spicy chillis à la Thailand? And who doesn't conjure up the image of the lone man in a pot, being cooked up by the natives with some guy named Ooog smiling good-naturedly as he shucks potato slices into the broth. Below is a wandering run-down of some of the things people put into boiling pots of liquid for dinner. Enjoy!

Different Styles of Hot Pot in China

Basically, every region in China has a version of the hot pot. It's food for the masses—everyone can find a pot, even if it's a washed out garbage can, and everyone can find water. Once you have those two all you need are edibles: Pork, lamb, beef, chicken, rat, dog, frog, fish... all are suitable and boiler-friendly. As for veggies, anything goes so long as it gets soft when boiled: Potatoes, carrots, tofu, celery, shoots and greens, lotus root, tubers and gourds that are sliced and pickled.... So, let's get into specifics of what goes in the pot, and how to eat it:

1) Southwest (Chongqing Style):

Broth: Beef stock (boiled beef bones or chicken stock for wimps), cow fat (or beef dripping), plenty of chilli oil, Sichuan peppercorns, chilli peppers

Method: Take this vast bowl of boiling red sauce and as many plates of ingredients (meat, veg, tofu, etc.) as you can muster. Insert ingredients into the sauce then pull out them with extra long chopsticks when suitably cooked and dip into a bowl of sauce.

Note: The bowl of sauce here is key. Ingredients include but are not limited to sesame oil, vinegar, broth from hot pot, garlic, cilantro, clam sauce, soy sauce, MSG and salt.

2) Northern (Mongolian Style):

Broth: Lamb stock made from boiled down bones, whole garlic cloves, celery, salt and pepper, small amount of small green chillis, some sliced onions, maybe a few greens, some 'taters and some sauerkraut to give a sour finish; lamb meat

Method: The lamb comes ready cooked in the broth and is not placed into the boiling vat later like with the above style. Often you get veggies on the side to add to the broth instead of meat. You can usually also order (or add) a pound of chopped and diced lamb meat to the broth after halftime if you're still feeling peckish.

Notes: Usually eaten in winter, this style of hot pot may have dog meat as an alternative to lamb depending on the restaurant.

3) Southeast (Cantonese Style)

Broth: I've seen two types on offer. One is the classic veggie stock and the other a rice porridge (in Shunde). The veggie or chicken stock is important because the southeast style is lighter than the other styles and focuses on seafood. It's a clear, veggie-, 'shroom- and bamboo-heavy broth with plates of hard-to-identify (for me) seafood dropped in. This is much more elegant than the southwest and northeast styles.

Method: Plates of chopped and sliced veggies and seafood for the most part, are slid into the broth as it quietly boils. The porridge style seems to be confined to small areas of the southeast, but the method is the same: sliding the goodies into the boiling vat.

Notes: Never spicy and not as savory, this has a delicate taste. Cantonese cuisine likes it slightly sweet, slightly bitter and with a hint of smoky loveliness from my experience.

Thai-Style Hot Pot

Thai style hot pot is spicier than the Cantonese style, much lighter than the Chongqing style and has ALL SORTS of ingredients.

Broth: Intense southern chillis in vegetable or chicken stock, laced with lemongrass, coriander, bamboo shoots, lime and maybe even some Thai basil plus fish sauce and/or crab sauce

Method: A hot and spicy pot + plates topped with all manner of vegetables and meats = lip-smacking, sweaty-brow deliciousness.

Notes: This is spicier than Chongqing hotpot, but the aggressive cloying spice helps you cool down during hot hot southeast Asian summers.

Korean-Style Hot Pot

Korean hot pot is basically northern Chinese hot pot with a more dog-heavy meat selection. The dipping sauces are different though, with the Koreans opting for more savory, sharper flavors to augment the dog rather than the straight chilli and cilantro+garlic+broth-infused dipping bowl of the Chinese.

Broth: Lamb or beef stock, lotsa pepper and onions and carrots, perhaps a brownish-black, flecked broth with no strong hot chillis.

Method: Slide stuff into pot, stir, pull and dip, munch and slobber.

Notes: Korean style is heavy on onions and pepper and their dipping sauces are thicker and require little to no broth.

Other Styles of Hot Pot

Hot pot in China deviates in different parts of the country from the three Chinese styles listed above. There is the beer broth, dog meat and chilli hot pot that is a favorite in the north and west for winter. The half-and-half yin-and-yang style pot with a mild, white broth on one side and fiery hot red on the other, which has gained some recognition in Chengdu and other parts of the country.

There are frog, rabbit and fish hot pots that utilize stock from the meat in question and tailor the broth to accentuate the meat's taste, e.g., spicy as all hell for the frog, using fresh, small chillis and a lot of bamboo shoots. Spicy for the rabbit, too, but using mid-level roasted red chillis for the broth, and a less spicy mushroom and bamboo shoot or greens broth for the fish. Most of the time you'll get sauerkraut with the fish, too.

Shabu-Shabu

Japan has its own hot pot, which looks to be a northern Chinese/Korean hybrid mixed with refined Japanese sensibilities. The name "shabu-shabu" means "swish-swish." 

Broth: Kelp and chicken broth with a miso tinge.

Method: Thinly sliced meat and veggies are held in the broth and then dipped into a classic sesame oil sauce.

Notes: The Japanese use very high quality meats and slice things so thinly that you should be able to cook them in under two minutes of swishing your chopsticks back and forth. 

European fondue

European fondue is basically the same thing as Asian hot pot, just with different flavors and sauces. People may have been very into fondue in the past, but it had its heyday in the 1960s and 70s—these days it seems to me as if people whip out the ol' fondue whenever they have some friends and/or colleagues over, but not really as a normal dinner option.

Classic European fondue uses various blends of molten, liquid cheese, served with bread and sometimes potatoes or mushrooms dipped in using long-handled, small-pronged forks. A later variation is the Bourguignonne fondue where cubes of beef are cooked up in a sizzling pot of boiling oil or a dessert version using molten chocolate dipped with cubes of fruits, cakes or marshmallows...  this is the only kind I knew about in the West and it was messy and tedious, but very, very delicious.

Southern Gumbo

The only true, day-to-day hot pot cooking I'm familiar with in the West is Southern-style Gumbo that comes mostly out of New Orleans, but also Mississippi, Florida and some parts of Georgia. There is no canon for gumbo, only scattered cults adhering to recipes passed down through the generations, but in essence it's a tomato and seafood base, with seafood and veggies tossed in as the broth boils, then pulled out and served with white rice.

If you've had some tasty, or not-so-tasty hot pot experiences, please feel free to add your knowledge in the form of a comment, suggestion or rebuke.

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