Our family always has Chinese hot pot for our Reunion Dinner on the eve of the Lunar New Year.
Hot pot can refer to a type of cooking method where ingredients like thinly sliced meat and fresh vegetables are cooked in a variety of soup stocks and eaten on the spot. It can also refer to the pot that this kind of cuisine is served in.
It is communal eating at its best. The hot pot is usually placed at the centre of the dining table with plates of raw food surrounding it. People sit round the table, pick up pieces of food from the plate, dip them into the hot soup to cook before eating it right away, with or without a dipping sauce. It is noisy, messy and a lot of fun.
In Mandarin, It is called 火锅 (huo guo), literally “fire pot”. In Hong Kong, they have a nickname for this, 打边炉, which seems to mean “hitting the side of the pot”. In Singapore and Malaysia, it is commonly called steamboat. Yes, I know, steamboat is a locomotive that runs on steam. So why did we use it to refer to a dish?
Here’s why, I think.
The traditional vessel used in hot pot dishes is a round pot with a funnel or chimney in the middle. Does it resemble a steamboat? I think it does. A little anyway.
The soup stock is poured into the “moat” surrounding the funnel or chimney and charcoal is placed inside the chimney to provide the heat.
Pots used for cooking has changed a lot. Most people do not use charcoal as fuel to cook food. It is slow and difficult to clean. Many hot pots now are electrical. It is a big wide and shallow pot with heat control panel and a glass cover. The electrical cords are also fairly long so that the pot can be placed on the dining table. But even if the cords are short, people will find a way to extend it to the table.
Another type of modern Chinese hot pot comes with a portable stove that uses gas canisters to operate. Personally, I don’t like portable stoves. They use gas canisters as fuel and I don’t feel safe eating next to a can that might explode.
Pots can also have separators or dividers to accommodate different types of soups.
Like any popular Chinese dishes, there are quite a lot of regional variations. You will also find hot pots in Japanese, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Famous hot pot dishes include the Spicy Hot Pot from Sichuan and Chongqing 麻辣火锅 (Ma La Huo Guo) and the Mongolian hot pot. In Singapore, we have the Teochew fish head hot pot.
Here's a recipe you can try at home.