Here in Southern China, wintertime temps regularly get to the zeros. It wouldn’t be a problem, my hometown in America gets much colder than that, but things here are aren’t heated. Classrooms, restaurants and most public building don’t have heat. And even worse they like to open the windows or doors in the freezing winter to get some “fresh air.” So you can spend days without taking off your coat and hat freezing the whole time.
But what can you do when you can’t take the cold anymore? You could dive under the covers, or even better head on over for some hot pot. Like the name implies this hot steamy meal is the perfect wintertime meal.
Hot pot is, indeed a hot pot filled with soup. Think of it like fondue made of soup instead of oil or chocolate. Every table has a depression in the middle (with a burner at the bottom) where the soup goes into. Hot pot begins with the soup. There are usually not too many choices on the soup flavor, more like each place has their own special recipe, but there are a few options: spicy, mild or mixed. Since people eat hot pot to get warm, most people like the spicy, but I’m a total wimp and cant eat spicy so whenever I go we get the half-and-half.
So you have this big steamy bowl of soup in front of you and you need food to cook. Some places have menus, and you order from the many choices and they wheel a cart over to your table filled with your order. But my favorite hot pot places have an ‘all you can eat’ style buffet. They have a cooler area filled with every kind of meat, fish, noodle, veg and tofu imaginable. I’ve even seen brains. Yes, brains.
So you grab what you want and bring it back to the table. This part is usually quite unsanitary with the tongs that was just in the chicken, touching the bok choy. So you need to remember to fully cook anything you take lest you end up with food poisoning. Also, at the buffet places they keep strict tabs on what you bring back to your table, and if you waste food, choose some but don’t eat it, then they charge you extra.
Then you just drop it in the soup and wait. Some of the things cook quick, such as the vegetables and greens, but it’s a good idea to wait awhile for the meats, to make sure they are thoroughly cooked (especially the thicker meatballs). It’s especially fun when everyone throws in all their food. It becomes a treasure hunt to dig it out later. Ineviatbly, after your finished and stuffed you think “whatever happened to that mushroom I got?” Picking stuff out of the hot pot is a free-for-all and if someone takes your food before you? Well, learn to be quicker.
The soup should be hot, boiling the whole time, and it makes the place nice and steamy. If you walk by a popular hot pot place in winter you usually can’t even see in, due to the steamed up windows. This is one of the only times when a person might take their jacket off to eat dinner.
Hot pot is also a perfect place for a fun group dinner. It’s active, it’s delicious and most people go with a big group of friends who just want to hang out and eat. At the buffet style places, drinks, including beer, is part of the price so some tables can get rowdy. (If it is a buffet place they will impose a time limit, 2.5 hours at my local place, to make sure people don’t just stay all day eating and drinking.) A hot pot place is not the place for a quiet date night, but more for a group of friends looking to have fun together. And it’s perfect to warm you up on those cold winter nights.