Hot pot: Fondue gone wild

Sichuan-spicy hot pot, or "mala" hot pot

I remember the first time I had hot pot. It was almost a decade ago, when I had just moved to Taiwan to teach English. The trainers, local and expat, took a group of us noobs out for lunch. After a flurry of Chinglish, the waiters were dispatched. We followed our hosts and filed around a buffet where we could assemble the ingredients for our own dipping sauce. I indiscriminately added spoonfuls of Taiwanese "barbecue sauce", minced garlic, green onions, soy sauce, sesame oil, cilantro, and hot peppers into my bowl.

Our hot pot dinner at a little organic restaurant in Ruisui, Taiwan.

We sat back down and the waiters handed out plates of raw vegetables, odd tofu shapes, and thin slices of frozen meat. The Chinese trainers got busy adjusting the burners for the vat of broth sunk in the middle of the table. Within moments, the soup was boiling. 

Taiwan hot potA hot pot meal with friends at a restaurant in Taiwan.

Then came the questions:
"We just toss in whatever we want?"
"Yes."
"Like this giant piece of cabbage?"
"Yes."
"Just toss it in?"
"Yes."
"And this shrimp?"
"Yes."
"And you put in the meat?"
"Yes."
"With your chopsticks?"
"Yes."
"The same chopsticks you eat with?"
"Yes."
"They touch raw meat and cooked meat?"
"Yes."
"And everybody’s chopsticks go in the same pot?""
"Yes."

Yes, Grasshopper, a thousand times yes. This is Chinese hot pot, not your mom’s dainty fondue with the color-coded forks, respect for Western property rights and penalties for losing your meatballs. You toss everything in, you claim nothing, and you use the same chopsticks to add raw food, remove cooked food, and eat it. You and everybody else. If it makes you feel better, let your 'sticks linger in the pot for an extra second as you imagine all the germs being boiled to death. 


Or use these handy wire skimmers to cook and retrieve your dinner. (They're necessities if you’re cooking fish, which is liable to fall apart during such a long, hot bath.) 

This quickly became one of my favorite meals in Taiwan. It was a new kind of comfort food in a foreign country, perfect for hangovers, cold days, and long, leisurely meals with friends. In that, I'm in good company: it was first made and shared by Mongolian nomads approximately one bazillion years ago, probably to help recover from binge-drinking fermented milk. I like to imagine I'm nourishing myself with the same stuff that fueled Genghis Khan's warriors...

Jeremy and I making hot pot in a tiny tabletop setup at Mala Tang in Arlington, Virginia

In Taiwan, most hot pot restaurants I went to didn't have the giant vat of broth boiling in the middle of the table. Instead, each person got his or own small cauldron of broth, and you could choose from dozens of soup bases like chicken, beef, medicinal, kimchi, curry, whatever you like! There are just as many different meat and vegetable offerings and just sit with your friends, cooking, talking, and eating until you were full of warm soup...

I think that's how I'd like to kick the bucket.

Anyway.

As for recipes, keep in mind that the style is more important than a definitive list of ingredients. All are made with a broth, meat and vegetables, and served with a dipping sauce, and some kind of carbohydrate, like rice, noodles, or rice cakes.

Kinds of hot pot

The most popular are:

You can also make hot pot at home.

I'll be posting links to the recipes as I make them. 


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