Winter and freezing temperatures are here, and if there’s one thing I’m most excited to eat this season, it’s hot pot. For me, hot pot means cooking with family and friends in steamy dining rooms, slurping down painfully hot noodles and dumping chili oil into my bowl, only to immediately regret it when I realize I have overestimated my spice tolerance.
Along with winter comes Lunar New Year, this year on Jan. 25, and if you’re away from family or want to celebrate the holiday with a group of friends at home, consider hosting a hot pot meal.
Hot pot is a Chinese cooking method in which you prepare a simmering pot of broth at the center of your table, and guests can choose to cook a variety of meats, vegetables and noodles in the boiling liquid — all served family-style.
Growing up, my family had a hot pot almost every Lunar New Year, pulling out extra tables and setting up boiling pots in our living room. Because you have to crowd around a central spot to make your food, hot pot is a great communal way to cook and eat together.
This Lunar New Year is the year of the rat, the first animal of the 12-year zodiac cycle. The rat is associated with yang (of yin and yang), representing the beginning of a new day.
If you’re looking to do hot pot at home, here are some tips on how to get started.
Obviously, the most important piece of equipment in hot pot is the pot. You can use anything from an electric hot pot to a repurposed fondue pot, butane burner or electric skillet, as long as it can sit in the middle of the table you’re eating at and get hot enough to keep your stock boiling. Depending on the size, one pot can serve up to six people, so you might have to get extra pots if you have a large party.
Each person will need their own bowls and utensils to eat from, in addition to ladles, tongs or other utensils to cook their own food in the central hot pot.
Broth and sauces
The key to hot pot is a good, flavorful soup broth. You can choose to make your own broth — which usually starts with a meat-based stock seasoned with spices and vegetables — or buy a premade broth mix that you can throw into boiling water. I recommend the Little Sheep brand, which you can find at most Asian markets like Uwajimaya and 99 Ranch. Cooking meat and vegetables, mushrooms especially, in your broth will add additional flavor to your soup.
It’s also a good idea to have an extra pot of hot broth or boiling water on the kitchen stove or close at hand — as your soup boils and people take multiple servings, you’ll have to occasionally replenish the pot with liquid.
If you’re looking to add extra flavors, or for fun dipping purposes, pick up a few sauces that you can incorporate on the side. Sriracha and chili oil add a spicy kick, try soy sauce if you want a bit more salt, or oyster and hoisin sauce if you’re looking for a slightly sweet, tangy touch.
Chop hearty greens like napa cabbage, gai lan and bok choy into medium-sized pieces (when chopping, think in terms of what’s comfortable to pick up using chopsticks) and cook in your hot pot until tender.
You can also add a variety of mushrooms: portobello, shiitake, enoki and button mushrooms all add unique flavors to your soup.
Keep an eye on your veggies, as they’ll tend to cook at different rates, and you don’t want them to lose texture through overcooking.
You can use just about any meat in hot pot (beef, pork, chicken, lamb), but it’s imperative the cuts are sliced thin to ensure quick, sufficient cooking. At most Asian grocery stores, you should be able to find these meats presliced and frozen in small packs. These usually cook quickly (less than a minute), but keep an eye on the color of the meat to tell when it’s done — beef and lamb will turn a lighter brown, while pork and chicken turn almost white when cooked through.
You can also incorporate seafood, cooking shrimp or fish cakes and fish balls, which you should also be able to find at Asian grocery stores. These will typically take longer to cook than your thinly sliced meats; expect to cook your seafood for two to four minutes. (The USDA has more detailed food safety tips here.)
And if you are looking for a vegetarian option, regular or firm tofu, cut into cubes, will cook quickly in your hot pot.
In Chinese culture, noodles are one of the most important additions to hot pot — they are considered good luck, and their length signifies a long life.
There are many different noodle options when it comes to hot pot: thick-shaved noodles, udon, vermicelli, ban pho or really anything you can find. Most of these noodles you can find fresh in Asian markets. You can also buy dry noodles, but it’s best if you cook them before adding them to your hot pot.