Much like sushi, pho and Korean barbecue, hot pot has become pretty ubiquitous in the United States. Diners all over flock to hot pot restaurants, especially in the cold months, to chow down with family and friends alike over a bubbling pot of deliciousness. But the uninitiated may be wondering, what is hot pot, exactly? We spoke to Sarah Leung, one of the four multigenerational food bloggers behind The Woks of Life, to get all the deets on this increasingly popular communal meal, plus for tips on making it at home.
What Is Hot Pot?
The Woks of Life
“There are many types of hot pot, but generally it’s an interactive meal where you have a pot of simmering [seasoned] broth at the center of the table with raw meats, seafood, vegetables, tofu, starches and other ingredients cut into small pieces for fast cooking,” explains Leung. “You drop these ingredients into the simmering pot to cook and enjoy them, usually with a dipping sauce.”
The dish isn’t associated with a particular holiday, but it’s most often served amongst large groups of family and friends, due to its communal nature. It’s named for the preparation method of cooking ingredients in simmering soup broth, but you could also argue that hot pot is more an experience than a specific meal or method. Soleil Ho of Thrillist notes that this way of sharing a meal is newer to the States than it is in many Asian countries, saying hot pot “[encapsulates] the communal dining ethos that so many Western restaurants have only recently taken on.”
When served, the broth is placed in the middle of the group for easy access. It can be kept warm over an induction burner, hot plate or an electric hot pot if you’re cooking it at home. (You can also opt for a hot pot set, which usually includes a heating coil, pot and lid designed specifically for cooking hot pot. You could also use a braiser or a shallow pot.) Some pots are equipped with dividers, meaning you can serve more than one broth at a time, side by side. You’ll also want to provide your guests with plenty of bowls, bamboo or wooden chopsticks and small plates, as well as designated cooking utensils (because no one wants to give their guests food poisoning). Include a few mini strainers or wire skimmers to fish cooked ingredients out of the hot pot and lower them in without injury.
The Woks of Life
“[Electric hot pots] are easy to plug in and operate, so that you and your family (or guests—hot pot makes a great party!) can cook an entire meal in the center of the table,” explains Leung. “They’re wider and shallower than most slow cookers or Instant Pots, making them a better option for communal cooking and dining; everyone should be able to reach the hot pot in the center of the table to add and remove ingredients. They also have easy dials to adjust heat, to turn the pot down if it’s boiling too vigorously or up if you’ve added a lot of ingredients and need to bring it back to a boil.”
Where Does Hot Pot Come From?
The simple answer is China, but there are a ton of regional varieties that vary across the country—and that doesn’t include all the nations that developed their own hot pot as the dish’s influence spread across Asia, like Thailand, Vietnam, Korea and Japan. According to Thrillist, the original hot pot was horse meat and mutton in broth, a simple dish born thousands of years ago, created by the Mongolian Empire.
What’s Included in Hot Pot?
Hot pot is all about the deeply flavorful broth in which everything is cooked (think of it as the cauldron of cheese at a fondue party), but a wide range of dipping ingredients and sauces are just as crucial. The best part? It’s basically dealer’s choice. Whether you have a penchant for spice, love seafood or are on a plant-based diet, you can tinker with each component to suit your preferences.
The Woks of Life
“The type of hot pot broth depends on the preferences of your group, as well as the region you’re in,” says Leung. “In Sichuan province, for example, the broth is filled with spicy chilis and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Mongolian- or Northern Chinese-style hot pot is lamb-based. Other popular flavors include herbal chicken broths, mushroom-based broths and tomato-based broths.” Among the most popular options are a hazy broth made with chicken, ginger and goji berries, sweet-and-sour broths and coconut seafood broths, says Ho. If you’re a newbie or serving a picky crowd, tomato broths are usually the mildest, and if you use a vegan or vegetarian kind, it’ll be lighter than other bases that include beef fat.
If you want to serve hot pot without fussing over a homemade broth, we won’t tell your guests if you opt for a shortcut. That’s where hot pot soup base comes in. These pre-packaged soup bases come in a wide variety of flavors and reduce the chef’s workload significantly. No matter the ingredients they include (which can range from fermented bean paste to Sichuan peppercorns to hot chilis), they simply need to be dissolved in hot water to create broth. (They can also be repurposed in stir-fry sauces and seasonings, combined with other aromatics and spices.)
First-timers need to keep food safety in mind. If you’re cooking raw meat or seafood, you’ll need to make sure the broth comes back up to a rolling boil before eating any non-meat dippers boiling alongside it. “This ensures everything is cooked through and prevents an upset stomach the next day,” advises Leung.
The Woks of Life
While dippers vary based on location and seasonality, there are a few items that you’ll likely always see at hot pot, like bok choy, Chinese lettuce or napa cabbage, sweet potato and lotus root, says Leung. “Other vegetarian ingredients might include enoki mushrooms, also known as golden needle mushrooms, various types of tofu and bean curd skin.” For the carnivores at the table, she recommends thinly sliced meats and fish, shrimp and other seafood, as well as prepared fish, shrimp, beef or pork balls. Finally, you have your starchy ingredients, like rice cakes, noodles and dumplings.
Popular meats include rib eye, pork belly or lamb shoulder. Shellfish and seafood can include head-on shrimp, squid, mussels, scallops, clams and hunks of fresh fish. There’s also no limit on veggies here, so go wild with mushrooms, kabocha squash, potatoes and TBH, whatever wilted greens or produce you have on hand. Tofu (Mike of I Am A Food Blog is partial to mini tofu puffs), fish balls, any type of dumpling (like jiaozi, wonton or shumai), rice cakes (the bagged, sliced kind are best) and noodles (take your pick of udon, lo mein, ramen or shirataki) are all fair game as well. The Woks of Life recommends having three to five items in each category, those being veggies, meat/seafood, starches and tofu/bean curd. The TLDR? “There are no essential ingredients—the only thing that’s essential is variety!”
One more note: Ho advises cooking your ingredients at a gradual speed. No matter how tempting it’ll be to scarf them all down, you’ll want to pace yourself as the broth naturally fluctuates in temperature as ingredients are added and removed. (“You don’t want to dip frozen chicken into merely warm broth—allow it to get ripping hot again because you want everything to be cooked well,” she explains.) You also want to be mindful of different ingredients’ cooking times; for instance, tough root vegetables and mushrooms will take longer to cook than paper-thin shards of meat.
The Woks of Life
This may seem like the simplest component, but hot pot dipping sauces are actually pretty complex. It’s technically optional to dip your food in sauce post-boil—but we can’t see why you wouldn’t. Some hot pot restaurants offer a well-stocked sauce bar featuring dozens of pantry staples, like sesame oil and black vinegar, so guests can mix their own. Other popular components include sesame paste, soy sauce, shacha sauce (aka Chinese BBQ sauce), chili oil, minced garlic, chopped scallions, fresh herbs and fried shallots. But if you’re cooking hot pot at home, feel free to mix a large batch of dipping sauce yourself to serve with the meal.
Not sure where to start with your DIY sauce bar? The Woks of Life breaks dipping sauces down into seven main components:
Core Bases: Their top choices are Chinese sesame paste, which is made from toasted, unhulled sesame seeds, or peanut butter and shacha sauce, which is similar to XO sauce.
Seasoning Sauces: These include staples like light soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, hoisin sauce and sesame oil.
Spicy Ingredients: Ever-popular chili oil wears the crown here, but you can also spring for sriracha, chili garlic sauce or chili crisp.
Fresh Ingredients: Minced garlic is perhaps the most beloved ingredient in this category, but chopped cilantro, scallions and fresh chiles are all fair game.
Nuts and/or Seeds: Roasted chopped peanuts? Go for it. Whole fried soybeans? Nosh away. Toasted sesame seeds? Pile ’em on.
Specialty Ingredients: If you see leek flower sauce at a hot pot restaurant, you’ll want to take advantage. It’s made from the white flowers of garlic chives, which are turned into paste and fermented to create the pungent condiment. Pricy, umami-forward XO sauce and fermented bean curd are solid options, too.
Spices: White pepper is prime for giving dimension to hot pot dipping sauce, while Sichuan peppercorn powder is known for its signature tingle. You also can’t go wrong with a pinch of regular old sugar or MSG.
As long as you have a couple options in each category available to your guests, they’ll be able to mix and match to their hearts’ content. Dipping sauce is perhaps the most personal part of hot pot, and seasoned diners tend to have their own combinations that they rely on time and time again. Even the crew at The Woks of Life have their individual signature recipes. (Sarah’s is thick, rich and heavy on sesame paste, along with chili oil, oyster sauce, garlic, cilantro and scallions.) Be generous when mixing a personal or communal batch; after all, you can always use the leftovers to sauce quick-cooked noodles.
Our Favorite Hot Pot Recipes
I Am A Food Blog
Ready to make hot pot at home? Here are seven of our favorite recipes to start with, which differ in broth flavors, dipping ingredients and countries of origin.
Sichuan Hot Pot (“It’s great for spicy food lovers,” says Leung.)
Tomato Hot Pot Soup Base (“It’s super simple to make, and vegan!”)