What is Chinese Hot Pot?
Hot pot 火鍋 (huo guo), literally translating as fire pot, is a dining experience universally loved by Chinese people. The idea is simple: assemble a selection of raw vegetables, meats, seafood, and starches — anything you want, really — then cook them in a boiling pot of flavored broth. Across China and Taiwan, bustling all-you-can-eat hot pot restaurants are a fixture of everyday life. At home, families gather around the dining table to enjoy their own array of ingredients.
Hot pot is a deeply communal method of eating — ingredients are meant to be leisurely cooked and enjoyed as a group over several hours, preferably accompanied by Chinese bai jiu, beer, sake, or other spirits. Many use it as a delicious excuse to gather with friends and loved ones. There ain’t no party like a hot pot party.
Hot pot styles vary drastically region by region. In Beijing, mutton hot pot with a light broth or water is most common, and ingredients are dipped in sesame paste and sesame oil for flavor. Yunnan, home to over 600 species of wild edible mushrooms, is famous for — you guessed it — mushroom hot pot. The Northeast of China favors a hot pot made of sour, preserved vegetables. The most notorious hot pot in China and abroad hails from Sichuan Province. A blood-red blend of chili, flowery Sichuan pepper, aromatic spices, and bars of beef tallow, the broth of Sichuan hot pot is 麻辣 (ma la), numbing, spicy, and not for the faint for heart. A can of sesame oil is used as a dipping sauce to, theoretically, balance the heat (spoiler alert: it doesn’t work very well).
And that’s just scratching the surface. The list goes on and on.
How to Make Chinese Hot Pot at Home
Though hot pot may seem intimidating to recreate at home, it is actually quite easy (and significantly cheaper than eating out at a restaurant):
- Start by equipping yourself with essential hot pot tools. I use a metal hot pot with an accompanying electric burner very similar to this one (Lenza gifted it to me a few years ago and we use it at least once a week). Other helpful tools include hot pot ladles, Chinese-style bowls, small bowls for dipping sauce, and chopsticks.
- Make your soup base.
- Wash and chop vegetables, meats, and other hot pot ingredients.
- Assemble dipping sauces.
- Wait until your soup boils then start cooking.
Pro tip: Do not put everything in the hot pot at once! Cook specific morsels of food at a time and eat as you go. Some ingredients, like root vegetables, take a little longer to cook. Others, like thinly sliced meat or mushrooms, take under a minute. Keep an eye on everything you put in the pot so it doesn’t overcook.
Hot pot can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. Sure, you can make a complex and nuanced broth by slow-cooking bones and mix-and-matching spices, but reasonably tasty variations can be made with bouillon cubes or even just water.
These days, there are a variety of packaged broth bases in every flavor imaginable that you simply combine with boiling water. Voila—authentic Chinese hot pot ready for enjoyment in minutes! Here are my my favorite brands:
- Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot. Little Sheep is a famous Chinese hot pot chain. I like their Sichuan soup base best, though the plain flavor is also tasty.
- Hai Di Lao. Another famous hot pot chain in China that offers manicures as you wait in the inevitable line. I like their mushroom and shrimp flavor soup bases.
- Lao Gan Ma is a Chinese chili sauce brand with a cult following. They carry a soup base that tastes very close to their flagship sauce.
For those up for a more involved broth, you can easily adapt a variety of Asian soups into hot pot. I like the following recipes:
- Lady and Pups’ “Golden Foundation.” The stuff dreams are made of. A rich chicken- and pork-based stock that is delicious on its own or as a starting point for additional seasonings.
- Lady and Pups Sichuan ma la hot pot involves a riot of spices and two days of prep. I’ve made this recipe for Christmas dinner.
- Seonkyoung Longest’s galbitang is a clear Korean short rib soup that would do wonders as a hot pot base.
- If you are a fan of miso soup, try this shiitake and miso broth from Tyler Florence.
Chinese Hot Pot Ingredients
The hot pot experience is infinitely customizable — it can be as every day or as exotic as you want it to be. Ingredients fall into a few key categories: vegetables, meat and seafood, tofu products, noodles and dumplings, and the “weird.” I dive into each category in detail below. View this section as a shopping guide for your own hot pot party.
Cabbage, leafy greens, and starchy vegetables — you’ve gotta have them all. Here’s where to start:
- Cabbage: Napa cabbage, green cabbage, bok choy
- Leafy greens: Tong ho (also known as edible chrysanthemum), spinach, water spinach
- Daikon radish
- Starchy vegetables: Taro root, lotus root, potato slices, sweet potatoes, Japanese yam, corn
- Bamboo shoot
Enoki are the quintessential mushrooms for hot pot. If you only buy one mushroom, let this be it. Other tasty contenders include king oyster mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, and crunchy wood ear mushrooms.
Meat & Seafood
At Asian grocery stores like Ranch 99, you can buy lamb, beef, pork, and chicken that is sliced thinly for hot pot. If you can’t find these near you, it’s totally ok to buy meat and cut it into bite-sized pieces yourself.
For seafood, I like scallops, frozen shrimp, mini squid, mussels, clams, and bite-sized pieces of a white fish like tilapia. Again, there are no hard and fast rules. Hot pot is about you and what you like to eat! For frozen or particularly pungent seafood, I recommend giving it a quick blanch (a fancy way to say boil for a few minutes) before serving.
Tofu & Beancurd
In the minds of most westerners, tofu is defined by the standard, basic b*tch white blocks carried at grocery stores, with soft/silken, medium, or firm textures providing the only semblance of variety. Accompanied by a lack of knowledge on how to properly cook tofu, many dismiss this protein-packed staple with an “I just don’t like it,” a frustrating bias for Chinese food enthusiasts to overcome (not speaking from personal experience here or anything).
In reality, tofu comes in all shapes, sizes, textures, and flavors that you can cook in many delicious ways. Here are a few hot pot favorites:
- Frozen tofu
- Fried tofu and tofu puffs
- Dried tofu “skin,” or bean curd sheets
- Bean curd knots
- Soybean “noodles”
火鍋料 (huo guo liao)
Huo guo liao, directly translating to “hot pot ingredients,” encompasses the different categories of processed items made specifically for cooking in hot pot. Some of these contain crab, shrimp, or squid, like the many varieties of fish balls and dumplings you’ll find in the frozen food sections of Asian markets. Others are taro or egg-based, like my favorite 蛋餃(dan jiao), an egg dumpling with a pork filling. Many are made with processed meat.
If you feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, cuttlefish balls, lobster balls, and fish balls with roe are always a safe bet. I also really like beef tendon balls, which are similar to the meatballs you find in Vietnamese pho.
While Westerners tend to stick to the tamer ingredients of hot pot, the Chinese embrace more exotic offerings: the chewy skin and cartilage of chicken feet, pudding-like pig brains, crunchy tripe, silky cubes of duck blood, and really any type of offal you can think of. If you are an adventurous eater, or simply feel like trolling your guests (think Anthony Bourdain torturing Eric Ripert in the Sichuan episode of Parts Unknown), your local Asian market should have a few fun options to choose from.
Make sure to include a mandatory toast of bai jiu (rancid—I mean delicious—Chinese liquor distilled from sorghum) along with each bite if your goal is the latter.
Noodles & Dumplings
Though all noodles are good noodles, I’ve recently started using only rice or bean-based varieties because they don’t cloud the broth with starch or stick to the bottom of the pot (a pain during post-meal cleaning). My favorites include mung bean glass noodles, vermicelli, and pho noodles. However, flour-based noodles — like knife-cut, dan dan, soba, or udon — are obviously delicious too and you should do you.
For dumplings, I usually pick out my favorite brand from the frozen food aisle and am good to go.
Fun, Miscellaneous Ingredients
- Quail eggs (boil them briefly and peel before cooking)
- Chinese cruller/savory doughnut, or you tiao (break into bite-sized pieces and add to hot pot broth for melt-in-your-mouth goodness)
- Fried gluten balls
- Stinky tofu (fermented tofu commonly served as street food in China and Taiwan)
As hot pot styles vary by region, so do accompanying dipping sauces. A simple approach for a hot pot party is to acquire a small inventory of oils, spices, and sauces that you and your guests can mix-and-match. Hot pot restaurants around the world do just this with a designated sauce station for patrons.
Here are some ideas for stocking your own sauce station:
- Finely chopped garlic
- Chili oil
- Sesame oil
- Crushed chili sauce, like Lao Gan Ma
- Sesame paste
- Leek flower sauce
- Oyster sauce
- Shacha sauce, or Chinese BBQ sauce
- Chinkiang vinegar
- Rice vinegar
- Soy sauce
My go-to sauce combination is finely chopped garlic + scallions + Chinese BBQ sauce + a splash of soy sauce and sesame oil. What’s yours?
You now have all the information to throw a hot pot party at home. A few key things to keep in mind before you go off alone into the big world. First, remember to cook small amounts of food as you go and learn by trial-and-error. A taro root, for example, will need 5-10 minutes to cook, while leafy green vegetables, mushrooms, and thinly sliced meat need less than a minute. Keep a close eye on what you put in the pot for the best results. Second, always sanitize your chopsticks in the boiling broth, especially when handling meat. And last but not least, to fully experience the culture of Chinese businessmen entertaining at a banquet, troll your friends with repeated, mandatory toasts of bai jiu.