Article by Tim King
Hot pot’s lineage allegedly traces back hundreds of years to Mongolia, but when we think of this incredible edible we are generally picturing the tasty cauldrons famous to Sichuan Province. Gathering friends around a table for some hot pot is a singular dining experience and, though there are plenty of hot pot restaurants around, few places are really “foreigner friendly,” so to speak. Luckily for you, I, Tim King, have lived in China for the better part of a decade and am what is referred to as a “zhongguotong” (中国通, a foreign person well-versed in the ways of living in China). I will now share with you the bountiful fruits of my experiences here and help you navigate the inscrutable world of hot pot, so that you might fill your belly to the brim with deliciousness.
CHOOSE A RESTAURANT
Though Xi’an is decidedly NOT a part of Sichuan, our fair city has a decent amount of great, authentic hot pot restaurants. Some personal favorites of mine are Dazizai (大自在) near Xiaonanmen and Da Miao Hot Pot at the Dayanta (they have a stage show every night!) but, if you’ve got no ideas, there’s always Haidilao. These are, of course, Sichuan-style options, but certain restaurants specialize in Beijing-style, and I’ve seen a Tom Yum Soup hot pot at least once.
CHOOSE YOUR BROTH
Perhaps the most vital decision you’ll make, your choice of broth will set the pace of your whole meal. I, the most China of Hands, opt for eyebrow-singeing spicy options, because I’m not a wuss. But hey, if you want to whip out that BOO LA DUH and eat vegetables parboiled in dishwater all night instead of enjoying any flavor, more power to you. Smarter parties will get a split pot to satisfy both sides. A China Hand pro tip: quarantine those who would not eat a single spicy thing to their boring-ass half of the pot. It will allow everyone convenient access to their preferred broth, and give your cowardly friends plenty of space to think about their poor life decisions.
CHOOSE YOUR FOOD
One of the most fun things about having hot pot is the diversity of food you can order. You should plan on ordering around two to three platters of food per person, and you’ll have your choice of succulent meat ribbons, fresh vegetables and other miscellanea like quail eggs or noodles. This is often the trickiest part, because a lot of delicious “local” places will have a menu entirely in Chinese. You’d be forgiven for not wanting to take the HSK5 just to get some food, so in these cases having a Chinese friend or a China Hand like me around is invaluable. Also, and no shade this time, Haidilao has a menu with pictures, making them the most accessible place to enjoy a bit of hot pot.
MAKE YOUR DIPPING SAUCE
The most authentic pairing for Sichuan-style hot pot is a bit of sesame oil, garlic and cilantro. After dozens of hot pots, it’s become my preferred dipping sauce because it generally comes in a little can and is clean and fresh and doesn’t overpower the flavors of the broth or your ingredients. However, a popular (and often tasty) option in this area is to use sesame paste as the base and then mix that with a dozen other sauces and things like crushed nuts. It’s cool if you don’t want to be as traditional as me, just admit to yourself that you’d rather eat sauce than hot pot.
BOIL YOUR FOOD
By this point some of your food should start arriving at the table, and you can finally start enjoying your delicious hot pot. If you’ve ordered tofu, start cooking that first. It’s pretty difficult to overcook tofu and, the longer you leave it, the more delicious broth flavor it can absorb. The rest of the stuff is easy enough: cook meat until it’s no longer bloody, cook vegetables until they’re softer and their color has deepened and, if all else fails, remember this trick: if it floats, it’s probably done. And don’t forget about your potatoes; they will never float but will disintegrate if left too long.
Eww, what is THAT? It’s intestine? The intestine of what? Gross, so gross. No, I didn’t order that! I ordered beef! Ugh, this stupid Chinese menu. FOO YOO ANNNNNNNN. Hey, guys how do you say “This is the wrong order” in Chinese? No one knows? Damn it you guys! Uh. Uh. Uh. Crap. Uh. KNEE HOW. WHOA BOO YOW.
Hot pot is a tremendously unique experience that, while delicious, can become more trouble than it’s worth. When you see those walls of Chinese characters, it’s probably better to just run like hell to your nearest Burger King for authentic American food. I’ve been told it’s the home of the Whopper, and if you’re feeling adventurous with your taste buds you can try to figure out what the Angry Whopper is so pissed off about.
Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease and a certified China Hand whose mouth loves te la hot pot but his butthole doesn’t. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org