Chinese hot pot is a well-loved interactive meal where friends and family can gather round a pot of boiling soup and cook anything according to their preferences. It isn’t a dish so much as it is an experience and the centuries-old dinner is popular with people of all ages. While seemingly complex to an outsider, eating hot pot doesn’t actually come with that many rules! Below are several tips and tricks to help you become a hot pot connoisseur.
1. Patience is the name of the game
Wait until the broth is simmering before adding food to cook. As tempting as it might be to throw in your favorite meats and veggies as soon as the pot comes out, wait until the soup is nice and hot before starting to cook. This ensures your meats cook properly and that your food isn’t left floating in tepid broth for too long.
2. Think small
Cook your food in small amounts rather than dumping the entire tray in at once. If you dump everything in at once, you run the risk of overcrowding your pot and you’ll have to be really attentive to the different cooking times of the various contents. You might have to take out everything out at a faster rate than you can eat, which means you’ll be left with a pile of properly cooked, but cold food.
3. Know the basics
It’s helpful to know a couple basic cooking times (or just bring a friend!). Know which orders to put your food in first so that nothing is undercooked or overcooked. There’s nothing worse than fishing out wilted, overcooked spinach. The first things to put in are all the ingredients that are firmer or take longer to cook, such as tofu, pumpkin, and daikon. Of these, tofu usually requires the longest cooking time so drop them in right at the beginning of cooking. When in doubt, wait fifteen more seconds.
4. Don’t mix your utensils
Designate a pair of tongs for your meats to avoid cross-contamination. A lot of hot pots involve raw meats and/or fish. Because you’re working with raw ingredients, you want to make sure you’re not handling cooked food with the same tongs or chopsticks that held said meats. And while on the topic of utensils, no plastic please. It might seem obvious, but it can be easy to forget about that pair of plastic chopsticks or plastic spoon if they don’t handle heat well.
5. Plan your soup ahead!
Choose which ingredients to put in your pot based on how you want your broth to taste. With great power comes great responsibility. Some foods are less-neutral tasting than others and can change the entire flavor of the pot. Fishcake, for example, is relatively neutral tasting, while shellfish and meat can give the broth a nice umami flavor.
Note: This point becomes irrelevant if you choose a spicy broth.
6. Same goes for your ingredients
Meats and seafood will do well with any soup base, but veggies and other soup-absorbing ingredients will fare better in non-spicy broth. Hot pot broths come in a variety of soup bases, including tomato, soymilk, seafood, and satay. The most popular ones are clear broth (made with ingredients like scallions, ginger, and mushrooms) and spicy broth (made with red chili oil, peppercorns, and other spices).
Both the non-spicy and spicy options are delicious, but with porous ingredients like mushrooms and tofu, you want to take care that you don’t end up with a mouthful of spicy soup in addition to the already steaming tofu you’re biting down into.
7. Sharing is caring
Hot pot is a very social, communal meal, so don’t forget to share your meats and fishballs, pour baijiu shots for your friends, and check the rules beforehand on double-dipping. It’s often considered polite to serve others before yourself, so make sure to keep an eye out for what other people might like to eat. For post-meal etiquette, see here for tips on winning the battle for the bill.
8. Watch your hair
For my ladies and gents with longer hair, remember to keep your hair pulled back. Seems kind of obvious, but as someone with long hair, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been caught hairband-less at a hot pot. You’ll want to save your strands from being singed or taking a swim in your soup.
9. Cold drinks are your friend
Cold drinks will help temper some of the fiery heat. Dairy drinks, such as yogurt or fermented milk drinks, are both also great beverage options to consume before and after hot pot.
10. But really, truly, honestly? Don’t sweat it.
There are no hard and fast etiquette rules for eating hot pot. Eat as you please. The best hot pot is one shared with friends, filled with ingredients that are tastiest to you. Just remember to keep your tongs and chopsticks to yourself and have a little fun with it!
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