Chinese hot pot is a delicious and fun communal eating experience that is thought to hail from Eastern China. Typically, it involves a huge bowl of broth placed in the center of a table that is heated there via induction or flame. Ingredients ranging from raw vegetables to thinly sliced meats are also placed on the table (or sometimes on a nearby cart) so that diners can submerge them in the broth to cook before eating.
While it is certainly a popular Chinese dish that you’ll stumble upon when traveling in China, it isn’t terribly common in the West. This is a shame because while it sounds a bit like fondue, it’s far more glorious.
We love it so much that we even figured out how to make a simple hot pot at home (details below). I will also recommend some tools and soup bases that we personally use. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
The History of Chinese Hot Pot and Three Popular Types
The answer to what is hot pot lies in its history. Hot pot is thought to have originated in Mongolia 800-900 years ago. The primary ingredient originally was meat (including mutton and horse), and the broth was not spicy.
Hot pot subsequently spread throughout China, where distinct regional variations developed and persist to this day. Understanding the various hot pot types may help you decide what kind you’d like to make at home.
Chongqing Hot Pot
Perhaps the most famous variation is Chongqing hot pot, distinguished by the extremely spicy Sichuan peppers added liberally to the broth. It can be almost impossibly hot for some unwitting (or unduly bold) first-timers. I crave them.
When living in Hong Kong, I watched a TV show that explained why such spicy hot pot developed in Chongqing. One of China’s largest cities (which used to be known as Chungking in the West), Chongqing is located in Sichuan province at the confluence of several large rivers that have been a center of trade and commerce in China for centuries.
The poorly-paid dock workers wanted a cheap and hearty food to keep them working and warm while at the often cold and wet docks. Making the hot pot broth so extremely spicy was a cheap way of masking the low quality or sometimes nearly-spoiled ingredients these subsistence manual laborers used. Or so the story goes, anyway.
Sichuan Hot Pot
Sichuan province in China is famous generally for its spicy cuisine. Sichuan hot pot is also synonymous with being hot and spicy thanks to its peppercorns. (They are also famous for Mala which is a dry hot pot.)
Coincidentally, we recently watched a popular American TV show profile the foods of Sichuan province. One local diner in a hot pot restaurant in Chengdu (a Chinese city perhaps most famous internationally for pandas) described enthusiastically hot pot’s effect on him as, “like sexy girls dancing on my tongue.”
Conversely, a young Chinese woman dining at a nearby table, whose eyes seemed to be watering, described her tongue as numb. That’s pretty much the spectrum of reaction to Sichuan hot pot.
If ever in Chengdu, you must absolutely seek out Chinese hot pot. Here’s a snippet of what our set up looked like at the famous HuangCheng LaoMa near the opera on Qintai Road. They are famous for a sesame paste dipping sauce.
Japanese Hot Pot
Hot pot has further spread throughout Asia and is popular in many Asian countries to this day (albeit under different names), including notably in Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan.
As in China, many different varieties have also been developed in Japan. Japanese hot pot has several names. Two are more well known in America than others: sukiyaki and shabu-shabu.
Sukiyaki typically uses a shallow iron pot, and in that sense is distinct from typical Chinese hot pot. Shabu-shabu is much more similar to Chinese hot pot. Thinly sliced meats and vegetables are dipped in a hot broth seasoned with kelp and then swished back and forth several times (to cook) before being eaten.
The swishing sound allegedly made in this process is what gives the dish its name, apparently. The food is typically dipped in a sesame seed sauce before being eaten.
Typical Hot Pot Ingredients
What goes in hot pot is entirely up to you. It starts with a soup base that can be prepared with a mild stock. Or, you can dial up the spicy in a manner that will blow your top off. I recommend somewhere in between or using a divided pan so that you can enjoy two options.
Common Chinese hot pot ingredients include various types of thinly-sliced meats (chicken, pork, beef, lamb), meatballs, vegetables (leafy greens, lettuce, baby bok choy, napa cabbage, mushrooms which can be shiitake or enoki), noodles, dumplings, bean curd, and seafood including shellfish like scallops and shrimp or fish balls. It is a savory meal.
When preparing hot pot at home, we typically take a look around the Asian grocery store to see which pre-sliced meats look good (or are on sale) and go from there.
How to Make Hot Pot at Home: No Recipe Required
Making hot pot at home could not be easier. This is how we do it.
Hot Pot Tools
Perhaps because shabu-shabu is more popular than hot pot in America, if you are looking to buy the equipment necessary to make a hot pot meal at home, search online under both shabu-shabu and hot pot.
It’s our personal experience, having lived in Hong Kong and traveled extensively throughout China, that hot pot is made at home by placing a large bowl on a portable, electric induction cooktop at the center of the dining table. It’s as simple as that.
Whether you then eat it with metal or wood chopsticks, use spoons and strainers, or have little bowls for individual dipping sauces is all optional. There are several small electric, all-in-one hot pot/shabu-shabu appliances available for purchase online in America. However, we bought:
- a portable induction cooktop
- an induction-compatible, divided bowl
- hot pot spoons (or shabu-shabu skimmers)
Be sure that the size of your pot does not exceed the size of the cooking surface of your induction cooktop.
What is induction? In a sentence, induction uses magnetism to heat things rather than thermal conduction from say, a flame, or an electric heating element. It’s a more efficient way to cook and easy to clean. In the context of eating communal hot pot when one reaches over the cooktop to cook food, it’s also probably a little safer than a flame.
Hot Pot Soup Base
Making hot pot at home is actually very easy (and, frankly, inexpensive). You don’t really need a Chinese hot pot recipe if you’re using a pre-made soup base. The main reason to use pre-made is also that you can source bases from the most famous Chinese hot pot restaurants. It will not only taste better if you do this but you’ll also save a ton of time.
Our favorite soup bases are by Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot as they make both a spicy (not-too-hot) and a mild base. If you prefer a mild hot pot soup base, I also recommend Hai Di Lao tomato flavor (we had this recently in one of the brand’s Shanghai restaurants — outstanding). You can buy these on Amazon or at a large Asian grocery store like 99 Ranch.
Our Favorite Ingredients
It’s been our experience that all hot pot ingredients, including the very thinly sliced meats, vegetables, and other soup bases, are readily available for purchase at local Asian markets.
Giant packs of thinly-sliced meat are usually in the frozen section. It would be very difficult to buy a pork loin and slice it as thinly as is required, for example. Save yourself the work.
We usually buy:
- Thinly-sliced meat (pork or beef)
- Firm tofu (it tends to hold up better than other bean curds)
- Baby bok choy
- Frozen Asian dumplings (just pick your favorites)
- Noodles (fresh Shanghai noodles, dried vermicelli, or broad noodles)
- Lotus root
- Mushrooms (whatever we can find but usually enoki and shiitake)
- Napa cabbage
We are a family of three so this haul usually can last for two hot pot meals. If I invited friends to join, I’d fill the table with more meat, seafood, and leafy greens.
When it comes to hot pot condiments, at home, we use mostly sesame oil and Laoganma fried chili in oil. You can also buy the famous Hai Di Lao sesame sauce.
How to Eat Hot Pot
When everyone is sharing the same communal hot pot bowl, best practices include the following.
- Take turns.
- Try to eat what you’ve placed in the bowl (it’s easy to lose track of food when it’s simmering, of course) to the best of your ability.
- If the bowl is split so that it can handle spicy on one side and a mild broth on the other, do not cross dunk. A mild broth can get spicy really quickly and vice versa.
- Drop hot pot ingredients in with chopsticks. Fish them out with chopsticks, a ladle, or hot pot spoons.
- It is easy to overcook (though frankly a lot of meat can handle this) thinly-sliced meats so you may want to simply swish it around quickly with your chopsticks instead of dropping it in.
Each diner may also elect to prepare a little bowl of dipping sauce for themselves, if available. The idea is to dunk the newly cooked hot pot ingredients into the sauce before eating.
Some hot pot restaurants have make-your-own condiment sauce bars while others do not. A typical combination is sesame oil with a little bit of soy sauce or a diluted sesame paste. You can also add chili oil, scallions, sesame paste, cilantro, green onions, or whatever suits you. There are no rules when it comes to condiments.
Some of the photos in this post are from a popular chain called Faigo that we ate at in Beijing. Faigo’s claim to fame is that everyone has their own mini hot pot which allows each person to pick their own broth style. While very cool, this isn’t common.
Hot pot pairs very well with beer. And, if available, an order of winter melon will help cool and soothe an extra spicy mouthful.
Finding Hot Pot Restaurants in America
Our favorite hot pot restaurant in San Diego is Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot. They are probably the largest Chinese chain in the United States and famous throughout much of China.
(Part of the reason why we know quite a bit about this popular Chinese food is that my husband’s law firm did some finance work for Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot when we lived in Hong Kong.)
They expanded to several American cities, focused on the West Coast, several years ago. The food is very good and it’s impeccably clean, which should go without saying but doesn’t always (unfortunately) with hot pot restaurants in America.
For an American with a casual, maybe even one-time, interest in a hot pot experience, the word “Mongolian” in the name is, for all intents and purposes, meaningless.
Instead, they offer an extensive menu of a la carte food options that go way beyond mutton. Diners choose between spicy broth, non-spicy broth, or a bowl with a divider in the middle enabling both kinds.
Our personal recommendation for the novice is their weekday lunch special. You only have to choose what kind of broth you prefer, and what type of sliced meat (beef or pork, among several options) you want. Everything else (including a selection of pre-sliced Asian vegetables and noodles) is brought to the table on an individual plate for each person. They do serve beer and wine, as well as other Asian spirits. But it is also family-friendly.
Hai Di Lao is also starting to open outlets here. So far, you can find their restaurants in California (including Cupertino, Irvine, Brea, Arcadia). They are famous for their divided bowls which can handle nine or so different soup bases (including the tomato base I recommended above). You have so much choice there.
And now you probably know more about hot pot than most people.
Where do you like to eat hot pot?