Hotpot (huoguo) (often translated as “chafing dish”) is sometimes described as a Chinese version of fondue, except the pot is bigger, and there’s no cheese to spoil the meal.

There are several varieties of hotpot, but the principle is much the same. The dish is said to have originated in Mongolia more than 1000 years ago and to have spread throughout China during the Tang Dynasty. It is very popular, especially in wintertime.

There is normally a choice of broth – hot, less hot, or not hot (i.e. with lots of chillies and Sichuan peppercorns, with less of those, with none of those).

Meat is sliced thinly to prepare it for hot pot cooking, so that it cooks quickly. Slicing frozen meat this way causes it to roll up, and it is often presented (and is available in packs from supermarkets) like this, which actually makes it easier to pick up with chopsticks. The cooking pot is often sunk into the centre of the table and fueled by propane. Or it may be above the table on an electric hot plate/induction cooker, a small gas stove, or spirit burner – or it may even be the original type with hot coals (see also Hotpot and friends). In some restaurants (not many), each diner may be given an individual spirit heater with its own pot (in which case, of course, the diner can only choose one type of broth), which is convenient if there are vegetarians present.

One person hotpot (gel or spirit burner type)

The “ying-yang” type of pot is quite common where traditional chafing-dishes are not used, because it allows both spicy and plain sauces to be used.

Ying-yang style pot

There are many different styles of hotpot. Here are a few:

Mongolian hotpot – the most popular, and said to be the original. This type does not include chillies or Sichuan pepper, but does include other spices and wolfberries (aka goji berries).

Sichuan hotpot/Chonqing hotpot– with more chillies and Sichuan pepper. Brings most Westerners to tears.

Chinese traditional medicine hotpot – with spices selected for their medicinal value.

Shanhaiguan hotpot – a local variety with pork and seafood.

Goose hotpot – a local Qinhuangdao restaurant’s speciality. A goose-leg in every pot.

Fish hotpot – I only came across this in Qinhuangdao, where it was very popular, so it may just be a local restaurant speciality or a variant of the Shanhaiguan style. The soup base is prepared with spare-ribs, t-bones (the end sections of spare ribs), and a whole carp with aubergine and celery in a broth with anise, garlic, and ginger, and fat red chillies. There were a few jujubes and wolfberries in there too. All cooked in a large cast–iron wok set into the top of a wood-fired brick stove. I am told that this kind of stove is traditional to the local countryside, where grass straw used to be used instead of wood. In the picture below, it was like the one on the left, which is obviously better then the one on the right, because smoke doesn’t get in your eyes. The hot air also circulated under the seats (brick, with cushions) of the restaurant before going up the chimney.

Many of the ingredients for the sauces used in hotpots are not available in Europe, but if you find a really good Chinese supermarket, they might have spice pastes ready-made. Even with the pastes, you still have to add garlic, spring onion or leek, and ginger to taste (plus additional spices, if you like). You won’t have to add any chillies, but might find it a problem not being able to take any away. The hot sauce is really VERY hot. The less hot sauce just has fewer chillies, and the mild (or not-hot) one may just be chicken stock or water.

This one could be a bit hot.

Here are typical commercial paste ingredients:
Mongolian style – plant oil, red dates, chillies, wild pepper, fresh ginger, galangal, MSG, iodized salt, sesame seed, sugar, longan, Chinese wolfberry, myrcia, and cloves.

Chongqing (Sichuan) style: as above, minus the fruit, but with even more chillies and some Sichuan peppercorns. (It is basically the same sauce as is used for Shuizhuyu, which is sometimes available in Chinese supermarkets in Europe.)

Add the paste to water, with garlic, spring onion, and chopped ginger. It should be like a thin soup. You can increase the intensity of the flavour by frying the paste for a minute or so first, before adding the water and other ingredients. Bring to the boil and keep it simmering gently throughout the meal. Have a hot kettle of water, or pot of the soup, ready to top up, if necessary.

Once the sauce is boiling, each diner adds meat, vegetables and tofu for a few seconds (longer with root vegetables), fishes the cooked object out with chopsticks or a slotted spoon, dips it in their own bowl of the dip, and eats it. Noodles (clear vermicelli or thin egg-noodles) can go in when you’re near the end. Obviously, the sauce gets stronger and tastier as the meal progresses.

There are often disagreements between enthusiasts about the best way to eat hotpot. Some like to place items into the hot pot a little at a time, eating as the food becomes ready, while others prefer to put some of everything in at once and wait for the hotpot to return to a boil. From time to time, more hot water or stock may need to be added, because of evaporation, but usually the broth is strong enough not to need any more flavourings.

When the soup is boiling, the meat is usually added first, then the fish and seafood, if using, then the vegetables, and finally noodles or potato-starch or mung-bean vermicelli. You don’t have to stick to this order, and many people don’t.

Typical ingredients

Meats – a selection of, for example
thinly sliced (frozen, fresh, or both) beef, pork, chicken, lamb, goat, donkey, horse, luncheon meat, cocktail sausages, meat balls (beef, lamb, pork, or chicken), meatballs with ragout filling, blood tofu (made from chicken or duck blood)

Fish (whole or sliced) and seafood – a selection of, for example
prawns, scallops, cockles, clams, mussels, squid, crab, lobster, crab stick, octopus, cuttlefish, sea cucumber, sea asparagus, fish balls, shrimp balls.

Vegetables, any, including those normally used in salads in the West; although cucumber is not so good, lettuce leaves are particularly nice. For example:
– a selection of green leaves, e.g. lettuce, spinach, Chinese cabbage, coriander etc
– different kinds of mushroom (including pre-soaked dried muchrooms)
– root vegetables, e.g. potato, sweet potato, yam, turnip (carrot is not very common, probably because it is so sweet), white radish etc.
– normal or frozen tofu  (I like the latter; it soaks up the sauce – the former will break up if it is too soft)
– tofu skin
– wontons
– fresh eggs (just break them into the soup and poach them)

After cooking, the food is dipped.
The usual cold dip is sesame paste, possibly with some peanut butter added to make to it go further, containing garlic, white pepper, Sichuan pepper, fennel, and wolfberries (optional), to which each diner can add fermented bean-curd, chopped garlic, chillies in oil, and coriander leaves, according to their personal taste.

If you like rice, you can dip the food in the rice instead, which will soak up the flavour of the broth.

Condiments (dips):
– sesame paste – this is the basic dip, into which you can add any or all of:
– coriander leaves and stems, chopped
– garlic, skinned and chopped
– fermented tofu (bright red in colour, interesting in taste)
– spring onion
– leek flower paste
– chilli oil, made by frying some chopped dried red chillies briefly in soybean or peanut oil – can be used with or without the actual chillies
– chopped fresh green chillies

Alternative dips (I haven’t actually seen these used, but why not?)
– hoisin sauce (south china)
– pickled tofu
– satay or peanut butter sauce, made by mixing peanut butter with water to a thick consistency
– soy sauce
– chilli sauce / Thai sweet chilli sauce
– sesame oil
– white pepper
– sa cha sauce
– vinegar (white or black)
– raw egg
– xo sauce

The following pictures are from a very modern style hotpot restaurant (Gudu-Gudu – like “Hubble-Bubble”) in Qinhuangdao, part of a chain. They have their “own-brand” induction cookers. It was popular with my students.

Condiments: sesame seeds, crushed peanuts, sesame paste, chopped coriander, spring onion, garlic, chillies in oil, pickled cabbage with chilli, leek-flower paste. And sour plum juice to drink.

Lamb meatballs, sliced fish, sweet potato, mushrooms, uncooked eggs
Assorted leaves, noodles, frozen tofu, potato-starch “noodles” (粉条 fěn tiáo), eggs

See also the page Hotpot and Friends for more on hotpot and some related dishes.

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