Hot Pot: Open Fires and Chinese Food

Chinese food is great. Noodle and rice dishes are common, spices you’ve never encountered will be a daily occurrence and every meal will be a new adventure. I would say above all else the meal I’ve grown the most fond of is hot pot.

My room mates, all Chinese, wanted to take me out to experience “real” Chinese food. I had been in Beijing about a week and I almost exclusively feasted on raw fruits I would pick up at corner shops (a call back to my American mainstays) and street food, oily, gross, disgusting, delicious street food. I had a few noodle dishes here and there but I was in such a rush that first week and ordering from menus was still proving impossible so I fell back on what I could see and point to.

I had to venture out eventually and this seemed like the best opportunity. The mean introduced me to spicy soup so hot I was sweating and my entire mouth was numb as well as the Chinese convention of drinking water so hot it can melt your tongue. Combined I thought I was on some hidden camera show but hot pot has become a dinner staple.

When you enter a hot pot restaurant the first thing you, a Westerner unfamiliar with traditional Chinese cooking (you LA natives can ignore this), will notice is the fact that there is a burner right on the table, in some cases embedded in the middle.

One of my favorite parts of living in China is being shocked at all the things that would be completely illegal in the United States. Obviously smoking in doors is a bit of a (nasty) shock but so are restaurants and stores with no windows and only one entrance, employees changing light bulbs by standing on a piece of wood between two bar stools and, in this case, open flames in the middle of a dinner party.

The variations I’ve seen is a large indented electric heater built into the table, flat top electric burners and then individual pot-holder fire burners sitting on top of the table. The fire is usually made of alcohol-cubes lit ablaze. It does the job but some people (my wife) will get irritated eyes from it over time.

Most all Asian countries have their own style of hot pot but the concept remains the same. You have a soup base, mushroom, garlic, chicken, whatever, and you place that on your burner. Restaurants will have either large communal burners that the group shares or individual pots, I prefer the individual of course. You get that sucker nice and boiling and then you add your ingredients.

The menu should have dozens of options such as meats like lamb, beef, chicken and fish in all sorts of cuts and shavings followed by tofu, again in quite a few forms and fashions, and then a giant myriad of vegetables and greens. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, a whole category of mushrooms, winter melons, tomato, the list goes on and on. Last you usually want to throw in your noodles.

The reason I say noodles come last is because you want the soup base to absorb all of this flavor your cooking. There is a specific order to eat your hot pot, and it leads to an annoying situation for me when I have to share a pot. You add your meat first, followed by your vegetables and then noodles so that each stage of the game gets tastier. Since I’m a vegetarian I have to grin and bear or my table mates have to forgo their favorite part of the experience. This is why I prefer the personal pots.

Eating hot pot can take all night. Because your eating all of the food one after the other theres at least five minutes between every feast. You add ingredients, wait and wait, like watching seconds tick down on a microwave, then BAM! If your mouth for joy! Rinse and repeat. Sometimes I get full halfway through but then after hanging out for a while, because I still have the burner in front of me and the table is covered with plates of food, I can dive in for seconds.

There are tons of salty condiments to stir your food around with, I prefer this oily peanut sauce, but the choices are endless. There is usually a little condiments bar you can help yourself to but be careful, sometimes they will charge you by the bowl and you won’t find out until the end of the meal. Again, I’m cheap.

A side variation I’ve run into in China is a “stick” hot pot. Stick food in China is common, you grab food that is skewered on a wooden stick and go at it. Street food has a lot of stick based staples. A stick food hot pot will let you go into a separate room and get whatever you want and cook at the table with each stick having a color coded price attached to it. I won’t lie, I have been known to hide a few these oily sticks in a certain someones purse at the end of the night.

A large group can expect to pay around $7–9 per person at a good hot pot restaurant, which I think is a steal. When all of my Western friends flock to the shitty American Rodeo restaurants with over priced tiny hamburgers, pizzas with mayonnaise and spaghetti without tomato sauce I roll my eyes. I understand that sometimes people want a taste of home but I am not one to spent money for no reason.

I didn’t fly 20 hours around the world to eat soggy McDonalds french fries and neither should you. Chinese food is a never ending experience and I would put hot pot near the top.

Originally published at on August 19, 2015.