Hot pot is a communal eating experience, thought to have been invented in Eastern Asia, in which patrons order different ingredients to boil inside of a large simmering pot of broth, which is placed on the center of their table.
Historians believe that the idea of hot pot was created when Mongolian leaders would travel their territory and try the foods of various regions.
But while hot pot has deep-seeded roots in Asian culture, it hasn’t quite taken off outside of Asia. Which is probably why most of you don’t know how hot pot works.
If you’ve been wanting to try hot pot, but you’re nervous you’ll embarrass yourself, don’t worry. We spoke to hot pot expert and owner of the popular Massachusetts restaurant, Baba, Zimu Chen, on how to do hot pot right. Chen shared with us a few of his hot pot secrets and the best selections for first-timers so we could present to you: a Beginner’s Guide to Hot Pot.
Different hot pot restaurants will offer a variety of broths, ranging from light and watery, to harsher, spicier flavors. Chen broke down some broth selections ideal for hot pot beginners.
This is your most basic broth (it’s the one I tried my first time). It has a light, warm flavor and is easily influenced by the meats and veggies you choose to put in your hot pot. It also compliments any meats and vegetables you choose to add, which takes some of the risk out of combining flavors.
“This is a great broth to try for beginners,” Chen said. “It’s very much like chicken soup, so it’s a simple, familiar flavor to ease into hot pot with.”
This is a Thai sauce, made using lemongrass, chili peppers, fish sauce, lime juice, and lime leaves. It has some heat from the chili (but not too much) which is balanced out with the sweet and sour flavor from the lemongrass and lime flavorings.
“Tom Yum is one of my favorites – it’s perfect for flavoring meats,” Chen said. “If you’re going to do a meat-heavy hot pot, I highly suggest Tom Yum. It’s got a nice heat to it, but it doesn’t leave your throat burning. Instead, it leaves you with a citrus flavor that feels refreshing.”
Love spicy foods? Then this curry-like broth is for you. Made with spicy, aromatic flavorings like Szechuan peppercorns, chilies, ginger, scallions, cinnamon, anise and fennel, these earthy flavors are great for both meats and vegetables.
According to Chen, “This is one of our most popular hot pot broths, but it’s not a great choice for people who don’t like curry. Maybe not best for your first time at hot pot, unless you know that you want some strong spice.”
You might be concerned about accidentally eating uncooked meat at hot pot, but Chen assures you not to worry.
“Hot pot meats are cut very thin, so they only take a few seconds to cook through. You will have to dip them in multiple times, but it only takes about a minute total to get fully cooked meat.”
Most meats work with hot pot, but the ones Chen suggests are: beef, pork, chicken, and lamb. Any of these choices are great for a hot pot novice. However, Chen appreciates some more unique meat selections (like organ meats, called “offal”) in his hot pot, too.
“The great part about hot pot meat choices is that you have the opportunity to try something funky, like beef tripe,” Chen said. “You can try something you never would usually try with little risk, because it’s not the only thing you’re tasting. You’ve got the broth, your sauces, and your vegetables — your beef tripe is easily disguised.”
Vegetable selection for hot pot is difficult due to the variety.. The Baba selection offers veggies such as: watercress, lettuce, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, baby bok choy, tofu, and mushrooms, to name a few.
Chen said that vegetables can be broken down into two categories: veggies that absorb flavor and veggies that give flavor.
Vegetables like corn or tomato will give flavor to a watery broth (like chicken broth) and vegetables like baby bok choy are great for absorbing the flavor of an overpowering broth (like ma-la).
Chen even adds that his favorite part of the hot pot experience is in the vegetable section: mushrooms.
“For me, mushrooms are everything; I get at least two different kinds in each hot pot I try,” Chen said. “Usually I’ll pair a stronger tasting mushroom like an enoki with a lighter mushroom variety, like a king trumpet mushroom. Mushroom combinations like this are a must-try for beginners.”
Like meats, seafood works better with some broths than others. At most hot pot places, you can enjoy seafood selections such as: lobster, crab, haddock, oysters, shrimp, seabass, and squid.
Chen’s personal preference?
“I love to mix shrimp with Tom Yum broth. Tom Yum is a Thai broth, and traditional Thai food would use shrimp to highlight the flavors of Tom Yum,” Chen said. “Shrimp doesn’t take long to cook either, maybe 1-2 minutes. The only thing that’s annoying is peeling the shrimp throughout the meal, but if your whole group pitches in, shrimp is a great first-time choice.”
The main job of noodles in hot pot is to pick up as much of the flavor in the broth as possible. They’re also responsible for adding some texture to the pot, depending on the type of noodle you chose.
A few staples to consider: udon, vermicelli, chow mein, and shangdong.
“I would suggest that hot pot beginners go for shangdong noodles,” Chen suggests. “They’re basically halfway between udon and vermicelli; they have the thickness that retains the flavor of the hot pot, but they have some texture to them, so it doesn’t feel like you’re biting into nothing.”
The tradition with hot pot is that each patron gets to make their own sauce, combining a variety of different condiments that are given to the whole table at the start of the meal.
Your typical sauce condiments for hot pot are: scallions, soy sauce, chopped garlic, and peppers. However, you’re making your personal dipping sauce out of these fixings, so don’t be afraid to experiment with condiments that are other than what you’re given.
“The sauce is very much a thing of personal preference,” Chen said. “You can make any combination of flavors you want. And if you want to try a new condiment in your sauce, but it’s not given to you, don’t be afraid to just ask your server!”
SPLIT POTS ARE GREAT
“If you’re new to hot pot and you want to try as much as possible, don’t forget that you can do a split pot. Split the pot in half and try two totally different combinations of broth, meats, noodles, and vegetables to get a sense of what you like and don’t like.”
TALK TO YOUR SERVER
“When in doubt, ask your server if they have any pre-made party platters. Oftentimes, hot pot restaurants will offer tried-and-true combo platters with broths and extras that they know will work well together. This is great if you’re feeling overwhelmed with choices.”
“The most important thing is to have fun at hot pot! This isn’t supposed to just be dinner; it’s supposed to be a dining experience. You come with a group to enjoy each other’s company and to try new things. Hot pot is all about experimenting and discovering your personal flavor preferences, so have a good time with it.”