Article: Michelle Aguilar, Video: Yuxi Dan, Alex Gao, Photo: Xuchen Hu, Infographic: Natassija Jordan
“If there is anything we [the Chinese] are serious about, it is not religion or learning, but food.” Chinese writer and philosopher Lin Yutang paints China’s culinary importance in his book My Country and My People. When it comes to Chinese food in America however, most people know of noodles, Chow-Mein or dumplings (if not, you are still in time), but few have probably heard or tried the Chinese Hot Pot.
Prepared with a pot of simmering seasoned soup stock heated on an induction burner, the Chinese hot pot (huǒ guō — 火锅) contains an array of East Asian ingredients: various kinds of thinly sliced meat (lamb, beef, crab, fish and more), egg dumplings, seafood, tofu, wonton, mushrooms, leaf vegetables among many others. There is also a variety of oils and toppings (such as sesame oil, chili oil, soy, chopped peanuts, cilantro and more) that are commonly self-served and prepared as dipping sauce for the meat when it’s done cooking in the pot. Once the broth is boiling, friends around the pot start to dip in their meat and vegetables of choice as they come.
The dish emerged during the Han Dynasty 1900 years ago. Legend has it that Mongolian horsemen used their helmets as bowls over a fire to simmer the broth with cooked chunks of horse meat and mutton. Credit is given to them now for popularizing the lamb and beef as the dish’s common ingredients.
Today however, you’re more likely to find the hot pot stewing on a dining table generously surrounded by a group of friends and family. More of a bonding experience with loved ones than a dish, the hot pot is both a visual and metaphoric symbol of harmony and community. This is unsurprising, given that Chinese culture is largely rooted on the concept of group-identity and collective conscious. Food in China even indicates closeness of different types of relationships, whether the person is out with a romantic partner, colleagues or a group of friends. It is a component of social gathering and sharing, not something to be eaten alone (although if you keep reading, you’ll learn what they do about people that go to eat hot pot alone).
The mélange of ingredients characteristic of the hot pot has made the dish remarkably adaptable, insomuch that there exists different variations of it across other Asian countries and in the United States.
Chinese cuisine was first introduced in the United States during the California Gold Rush in 1949 and 1992 by the Cantonese from Guangdong Province, a place that has been historically known for its excellent food.
The first Chinese-based dish to be introduced to America was the Chop Suey (an assemblage of stir-fried ingredients) in the Chinatowns — that with great difficulty due to linguistic, cultural and even physical cooking-ware differences. The food first started to make the headlines in New York among the non-Chinese in the late 1890s.
It wasn’t until a few decades ago however, that the hot pot was introduced in the United States.
Although the hot pot first began to spread throughout China, distinct variations developed all throughout Asia. But the following are the most common types of hot pot adaptations per country. The differences lie in the meat used, the soup base (e.g spicy or mushroom) and condiments used to flavor the meat.
Sichuan Hot Pot
It is the most popular variation and is characterized by spicy Sichuan peppers added liberally to the broth.
Mongolian Little Sheep
Originated in Mongolia, main types of meat include beef and lamb.
Dong Lai Shun
Popular hot pot in Beijing. Lamb as a meat of choice is emphasized and the broth is made up of mainly water with mushroom. The lamb is eaten with sesame paste.
Similar to Beijing-style hot pot, beef is the preferred choice of meat (instead of lamb) and is dipped into hoisin sauce.
Hot pot dishes in Japan are called Nebemono or 鍋物, なべ物. These are the two most common Japanese hot pots.
It is mainly seasoned with soy sauce, sugar and beef is meant to be fully cooked (either by first grilling it or allowing it to be boiled in the sauce). It is typically eaten with scrambled raw egg and eaten.
It is also eaten mainly with beef, lightly-flavored and is more like the Chinese hot pot where the meat is parboiled in the hot stock or sauce.
Other regions with their own type of hot pot include Cambodia, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines.
To explore the Sichuan Hot Pot, our journalism class group visited the HaiDiLao Hotpot in Cupertino, California. It was a far, but a trip very well worth the drive.
HaiDiLao Hotpot is a chain restaurant that was founded in Sichuan Province, China in 1994. It is one of the most successful hot pot chains which opened up its first restaurant in the U.S in Arcadia, California in 2013 — also the first HaiDiLao to open outside of China.
Founder of the chain, Zhang Yong comes from a small village in Sichuan. At 19, he was a welder in Jianyang, Sichuan and found the hot pot industry dissatisfying. After a full day of hard labor, he looked forward to finishing off his day with some warm comforting hot pot, but a lot of the restaurants held rude staff and uninspiring cuisine. After leaving his job at a state-owned tractor factory due to a dispute over a company apartment for him and his fiancée, he opened his first restaurant with just four tables.
Today, Yong runs the nation’s most popular chain of restaurants that uphold his personal values of kindness and personal empowerment.
This can be readily witnessed, as every restaurant seems to cater to every customer at unique lengths whether it’s through entertainment with their noodle-dancers, genuinely catering to customers’ requests, adjusting the hotpot based on local eating habits, or even shoe/nail polishing services as the customer awaits their food.
We were greeted attentively by a kind host who led the traffic of incoming guests with genuine accommodation. Across from the restaurant stand several other eateries and a garden-like wine bar that seems to play live music regularly. “In Other Words” by Frank Sinatra was echoing throughout the waiting area hallways outside the elegantly curated HaiDiLao.
Customers are given free snacks and fruit water as they wait. Two giant teddy bears sat against the wall in case a guest were to come to eat alone, which is a surprising yet adorable quirky service add-on for the non-Chinese goer. In China, this type of service trends within different restaurants as well.
As we were seated, those of us with long hair were offered small black hair ties to tie up our hair before getting to work with the hot pot. We were also offered plastic ziplock bags for our cell phones, keys or other important items that could get wet. The waiters bring the broths as ordered.
About 10 minutes later — as we’re picking oils and other toppings to prepare our dipping sauce…
…the meats and vegetables start coming in: thinly-sliced beef, crab sticks, chicken, quail eggs, greens and vegetables.
We were able to meet with the manager of HaiDiLao Hotpot, Yang Guang, to learn more about the restaurant’s business pattern and philosophy — largely based on Chinese tradition wisdom. We were also able to spend a little time with eaters to ask them about their thoughts on the Chinese hot pot.
Although traditionally served as a single pot for everyone to share, the hot pot in the U.S can be found served individually as well. You can immediately see the difference in most American local hot pot stores as the one below, Tasty Pot in Berkeley, California.
You can find hot pot restaurants easily all across San Francisco and the East Bay. Richmond District seems to have a small hub of hot pots and so does Oakland. In and around Richmond you can find decently-rated hot pot cuisine in the following: The Boiling Hot Pot, Jin Pot, and DNM Hot Pot among others. In and around Oakland: Hot Pot House and Tastee Steam Kitchen.
Hot pot can be expensive. So here is a cost-effective easy hot pot recipe for you to enjoy.
The evolution and adaptability of the hot pot has lend it to become a widespread friend and family favorite, but regardless of where it might be slurped and chowed, it is a special meal that not only brings friends and families together, but gets them to even cook together as well. Talk about some real, natural quality time.