Making Chinese hot pot

Let's get something straight: there's no Chinese hot pot "recipe", and that's the beauty of a hot pot dinner. But I can tell you how to make hot pot at home. Since Chinese New Year is always just around the corner, it's probably a good idea to learn how so you can host your own hot pot party.

hot pot at home

The easiest way to explain Chinese hot pot to someone who's never had it before is to call it "Chinese fondue," but when you make fondue, everyone generally has their own color-coded fondue fork, and losing your food in the pot in penalized with a kiss. By contrast, when you make hot pot, you toss in all the ingredients and let them freely boil and mix, and then take out whatever you like. Everyone can add their favorite proteins and vegetables, and nobody calls dibs. Each guest just fishes out what he or she wants as it's ready. Democracy was never so delicious. 

What you need

A Chinese hot pot set-up at its most basic requires a hot plate or burner, a pot, broth, and a selection of proteins, vegetables, and carbohydrates. And of course, the dipping sauces, which are an art form in themselves. 

I like to use a burner, the same kind you would use for camping, in a well-ventilated area (preferably outside). You can use a hot plate, but then I worry that someone will trip on the cord and spill the hot soup. Our little orange electric tabletop grill also has a very cool grill top that can support a pot for Chinese hot pot and even cheese fondue, so that's another option. You can decide what to use based on your own needs. Just remember, safety first! 

Any pot will do, but I love, love, love my divided pot because I can make a spicy hot pot and a bland/salty/regular hot pot. But you can use a regular pot (as long as the sides aren't prohibitively high), a metal or cast-iron fondue pot, or even an electric fondue pot. After all, broth fondue isn't called "Chinese fondue" for nothing!  

spicy hot pot

In addition to the pot and the burner, you will also need a ladle, a couple of wire skimmers, and some chopsticks or tongs for cooking and serving the hot pot. When I host a hot pot dinner, I make sure each guest has a bowl for their meal, another small bowl (usually a pinch bowl) for their dipping sauce, a pair of chopsticks and a spoon. I also have a ton of odd bowls and plates for serving all the raw meat, vegetables, and tofu ingredients. Paper plates would probably be fine if you aren't hoarding tableware for the Apocalypse, like me. 

Making Chinese hot pot soup

Any Chinese hot pot meal starts with a soup base. You can literally start a hot pot off with water and it will still be a tasty soup when you're done. Broth is also good--chicken, vegetable, beef, etc. Choose a brand that doesn't have any salt or other flavors because the broth will become a delicious soup as it takes on all the flavors of the ingredients you're cooking. Also, the Chinese hot pot dipping sauce can be very salty and intensely flavorful on its own, and you don’t want the flavors of your soup to clash.

For the brave or more experienced hot pot enthusiasts and chefs, you can try a spicy Sichuan hot pot or Chongqing hot pot with the "mala," or numbing-spicy, peppers and peppercorns. Use instant hot pot soup broth packets if you're ready to experiment but aren't willing to make a big effort. (I can totally sympathize!) 

Keep some broth on standby in a kettle or in another pot on the stove so you are always ready with hot refills for the communal pot. 

Hot pot ingredients

You can choose ingredients according the type of hot pot you are making, or just make a big soup with all your favorite raw meat, tofu, and/or vegetables. Thinly sliced beef and pork are delicious--if you can’t find the right cuts at an Asian grocery store near you, just place the meat in the freezer until it’s partially frozen and then slice it with a sharp knife to about the thickness of a CD. I also use thin slices of chicken, just make sure it’s cooked thoroughly before you eat it. Seafood like shrimp, clams, scallops, shellfish, and fish are also excellent in hot pot and add a lot of flavor. Use that wire skimmer to cook and serve the fish without it breaking into pieces.

Hot pot ingredients at our local Carrefour. English-speaking customers are in the minority here, which makes for some pretty interesting translations.

Chop and serve an assortment of fresh vegetables: leafy greens to soak up the broth, sliced carrots and slices of corn on the cob to add sweetness, mushrooms for umami. Leafy greens like cabbage and bok choy capture the most broth per bite, so they're my favorite.  I always include napa cabbage, bok choy, mushrooms, fried tofu squares. Slices of corn on the cob, turnips, and carrots add sweetness to the broth. Tomatoes will burn your mouth--be careful. Mushrooms, bean sprouts, asparagus, Chinese broccoli, broccoli, cauliflower, and just about anything else will make for a good soup. You can easily make delicious vegetarian hot pots by simply excluding the meat and using a vegetarian broth. A vegetarian mushroom hot pot is a very hearty meal!

hot pot recipe

Weeknight hot pot meal with lots of veggies ready to cook.

Finally, if you feel moved, buy and plate some frozen things from the Asian grocery store (or as it's called in Asia, the "grocery store"): 

  • weird little tofu things, 
  • meatballs of questionable constitution, 
  • fish balls (surprisingly not made from fish testicles), 
  • dumplings (the kind that you boil), and 
  • fish cakes (in bright colors and strange shapes, they sometimes look surreal and inedible, but they're pretty tasty!). 

Fish cakes with faces in hot-pot soup.
Assorted fish cakes from the convenience store.

There are no rules--this is real potluck. 

Hot pot dipping sauce 

And then, prepare the real magical ingredients: the dipping sauces. If you want to go with what you know or what you might already have handy, soy sauce and that Thai peanut sauce make great dipping sauces. 

If you want to impress your friends and family, here's a shopping list:

  • shacha sauce/Taiwanese barbecue sauce (The spicy stuff is spicy. You have been warned.)
  • cilantro, chopped
  • green onions, sliced
  • brown sugar (or white sugar is fine, too)
  • shelled peanuts, ground (stick them in a plastic baggie and beat them with a heavy object)
  • sesame oil
  • hot peppers, sliced 
  • Chinese black vinegar
  • rice vinegar
  • soy sauce
  • fresh raw eggs*

Place out these ingredients buffet-style for your guests. Using a liberal spoon of shacha sauce as a base, add whatever else you like.

Pro-tip: use pinch bowls or small rice bowls to make your sauce.

*Some people like to add a raw egg to their dipping sauce. The hot meat and veg is supposed to cook the egg as you eat it. I never add a raw egg, but to each her own. 

Get it done

When the soup is boiling and your dipping sauce is ready, toss your raw ingredients into the pot one by one - with a little common sense. Corn and carrot slices will take a long time to cook and will also add some sweetness to the broth, so they should go in first. Cook up a few rounds of meat next if you're into that, and the fat will add a little more flavor and substance. Add the other vegetables in turns, and dip every hot, wet bite into your sweet, savory, and spicy dipping sauce. Serve hot pot with bowls of rice if you like. 

Once you've pulled a piece of something tasty out of the soup, you dip it in the sauce--the wonderful, magical hot pot dipping sauce. My mouth is watering just writing about it. Hot pot dipping sauces are a mix of all your favorite 

Conventionally, at the end, while there is still a flavorful broth bubbling away, you should add a few handfuls of noodles or rice cakes. Guests can ladle out the soup to drink from their bowls and eat the noodles to top off the meal. To tell you the truth, I hardly ever make it that far. I love a bowl of hot pot soup at the end of my meal, and then it's time to loosen the belt and enjoy the brief, intense happiness you get from a good meal with good friends.

If you're ready, check out Japanese hot pot (shabu shabu)

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