Huǒ guō – better know as hot pot – is a taste of China you are soon to never forget. How it works is pretty self-explanatory: you have a hot pot, you order food, you cook it in the hot pot, voilà.
Think of this like fondue, where the fondue is not cheese, but boiling water with seasonings, nuts, Chinese celery, and more to add gentle flavors. And of course, you’re using chopsticks instead of spears.
But is it truly that simple? Here we’ll give you the four basic rules to eating hot pot, as well as different variations you can find in restaurants and provinces around China.
1. Start with the meat
What your meat of choice is will depend greatly on where in China you are, but regardless, this should be the first thing you drop into your broth. Our recommendations for each region are as follows:
Northern Chinese Hot Pot – lamb is the most popular choice in the northern region. Often this form of hot pot comes with sauces and seasonings on the side like peanut soy sauce, cilantro, and red peppers, and the broth is filled in what looks like a small furnace.
Sichuan Hot Pot – any meat is fair game here, but beware of the spice. You might be given a pot with two sections of broth – one spicy and one mild. Unless you can handle some serious heat, cook the meat in the mild broth and then dip it in the spicier one for a couple seconds before eating.
Cantonese / Southern China Hot Pot – the seafood reigns supreme here. We suggest fish, shrimp, crabs and oysters, but you can usually find meatballs as well if you are not a fan of seafood. Here your hot pot can commonly be served in an iron pot.
2. Vegetables second
After you’ve eaten most of the meat, you can begin to add vegetables. What particular vegetables you choose to order will depend on your own taste, but here are a few things to note:
- Tofu, eggs, and mushrooms are grouped with vegetables in China
- Potatoes take at least 8 minutes to cook, so add these first and let them sink to the bottom
- Green vegetables will take almost no time at all to cook
3. Noodles last
For your last course, dump your noodles into the broth and whatever vegetables or meat linger, and wait about three to five minutes for them to cook. They will have some flavor from the broth, but these are especially delicious if you mix them with a side sauce on your plate.
Why is this order so important? In China it is believed that eating your meal in this order is better for your stomach and is overall better for your health. So if you’d like a taste of China, eat in the authentic Chinese way and try to keep your meal to this order (but we understand if you can’t resist ordering another round later).
4. Don’t forget to drink your beer and turn on the fan
Trust us when we say this meal is called hot pot for a reason. If you’ve chosen a smaller, hole-in-the-wall restaurant for your hot pot experience, be sure to turn on the fans as soon as your food arrives. At larger all-you-can-eat joints or outdoor seating tables, be sure to order a pí jiǔ (beer) or other cold beverage to stay cool.
Lastly, have a great time! Hot Pot is not just a meal, but a social gathering. Show off your knowledge of Chinese culture while enjoying a taste of China with good friends and good food.
Cover image: tabletopcook.com
Never heard of hot pot before? Check out these other 10 Chinese foods you probably haven’t tried yet.