There are many different ways to enjoy Taiwanese hot pot at restaurants in Taiwan, ranging from places where you order your own small pot of boiling-hot soup for the equivalent of few dollars US to places where you order expensive ingredients a la carte and cook them up yourself in a communal bronze pot. What these experiences share in common is the fun of cooking your meal together with your friends...and that tasty, tasty hot pot dipping sauce.
Want to make Taiwanese hot pot at home? Check out this page for ingredients, instructions, and ideas!
In some restaurants, you order a ready-made hot pot right off the menu and the server will bring you a steaming bucket of soup full of raw ingredients that are already boiling. The hot pot is generally served over a Sterno burner, so you basically have your own chafing dish. This requires the least amount of DIY and you don't even cook together with your friends, though we always order an extra plate of clams or tofu to share. It's also probably closest to what we've tried at Chinese restaurants in the US. Of course, you can still make your own sauce, but at the cheapest places near the local university, where we pay less than US$5 per meal, the condiment options are limited to sacha sauce, sesame oil, and soy sauce (with and without hot peppers).
Taiwanese hot pot for one; it's served like a small pot of soup on a burner, but some of the ingredients are still raw. You let it cook and dip each bite in the dipping sauce
Keep in mind that preparing hot pot like a big, friendly soup is a perfectly acceptable way to serve it at home on lazy, cold days. Just cook all the ingredients up in a big pot on the stove, or better yet, on a hot plate on the coffee table (please, please be safe--this isn’t the way to do it if you have kids or pets running around), and just help yourself as you feel hungry. It's not exactly tabletop-cooking party, but it'll keep everyone happy and well-fed for hours.
At other hot pot restaurant chains, your pot sits right inside the table. It looks like magic, but really it's just a fancy way of storing hot plates. The servers bring you whatever protein you order--any combination of pork, beef, chicken, tofu, seafood, meatballs, hot dogs, etc--and a tray piled high with more vegetables than you think you can eat. But don’t worry! You’ll get through it in no time, especially with unlimited access to salty sacha sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce, black vinegar, cilantro, chopped garlic, hot peppers, brown sugar, crushed peanuts, and raw eggs. You won't even realize you've eaten a portion of cabbage the size of your head until it’s all gone.
You don't need to live in Taiwan or even go to a special restaurant to enjoy hot pot. Visit this page to learn how to make hot pot at home. As long as you can order sacha sauce online, you should be able to host your own hot pot party.
The type of hot pot place we frequent most often is probably the all-you-can-eat hot pot buffets. The walls are stacked high with shelves full of meat and vegetables, there are many different kinds of broth to choose from, and there are more ingredients for the dipping sauce than you can fit in your bowl. Trust me--I always try to put a little of everything in my dipping sauce.
At the poshest hot pot place we've been to in Taiwan, 華川宴 [Huachuan Yan], the soup is served in a giant cauldron that sits on the table above an open gas flame. The cauldron has a divider so you can order two kinds of broth, and we usually get the spicy Sichuan broth and the milder northern-Chinese style pickled broth. We order meat and vegetables a la carte. The servers also keep the pot full of cubes of tofu and congealed duck’s blood. It's not cheap: we paid at least US$30 a person last time we went, which is outrageous to me for a meal of boiled meat and vegetables* that we can get for US$5-10 elsewhere, but it’s the only place in town that has soup anything like the Sichuan-style hot pot I enjoyed so often while I was living in Shanghai. AND when you leave, you can take all the hot pot with you. They’ll even top your pot off with tofu and duck's blood (lucky you!) and send you off with a giant plastic bag full of hot soup.
(All this sounds much less strange after you've been living here a couple of years.)
They have all the regular condiments, but the one special sauce that I love here is the Japanese-style sesame dipping sauce. It's the perfect salty complement to meat and vegetables cooked in the pickled vegetables broth.
I really like this place because everyone eats from the same pot and the pot looks very old and exotic. Also, it's not easy to find good Sichuan hot pot in Taiwan, and this place gets it right.
You can make hot pot at home for a lot less. Check out this page for a list of ingredients and directions.
*It usually makes me sad to hear people describe hot pot in disparaging terms, but in this case, the price tag really puts things in perspective. This is a once-a-year kind of place.
Some of my favorite online stores might have just what you need for your next tabletop meal!
Asian Food Grocer has a great selection of essential ingredients and many hard-to-find items.
Cilantro Cook Shop has a great selection of quality raclette and fondue sets.
For The Gourmet has an amazing selection of cheeses and chocolates.
Sephra specializes in chocolate, caramel and fruit fondues... and fountains.