Hot pot can be overwhelming for newbies. But whether you decide to brave the lines at hot commodities Liuyishou or The Dolar Shop, or choose to start your hot-pot experience at old faithfuls like Little Sheep, your experience will be five times better if you follow these simple tips.
1. Think about the group: Does someone have nut or shellfish allergies? A vegetarian? You’re cooking fish and meat in the same pot. You can do a split order, with different broths divided in a pot. If you fear cross contamination, order a separate pot. Or look for spots that serve individual instead of communal pots.
2. Set aside time: These communal dinners usually run 90 minutes or longer. It takes a while to cook through all the plates of meat and seafood.
3. The waiting game: Make reservations. If reservations aren’t accepted, come right when doors open. But note that if you miss out on that first seating, your wait is likely 90 minutes.
4. Know your ingredients: Most hot-pot food falls under two categories: those that absorb and those that give off flavors to the broth. Tofu, leafy greens and Chinese doughnuts act like sponges and will resemble whatever your broth tastes like. Marinated meat, shellfish and carrots impart flavors to the broth.
5. Curb your enthusiasm: Don’t dump everything in at once. That lowers the temperature and slows down cooking time.
6. It’s all about balance: Complement longer cooking items with quick-cooking items. Dump in potato crinkle-cuts and root veggies, which take five minutes to cook, while you flash cook deli slices of beef and lamb, which take 10 seconds.
7. Look for the floaters: How do you know when those fish balls are cooked through? Wait until they float like buoys.
8. Know your broth: Complement your ingredients with the flavor profile of your broth. Rich, spicy broths go well with offal and beef, but that same broth may overwhelm fish fillets and delicate seafood.
9. Cheaper isn’t always bad: This is a contentious point, but avoid wagyu and other prime cuts along with sashimi-grade fish. In a boiling broth, the end result isn’t that much better than using cheap cuts. Unless you flash cook those marble cuts of meat and sushi-grade fish, stick to the cheaper cuts.
10. Practice sauce restraint: The sauce bar, with a dozen oils, seasonings and herbs, presents an endless trove of dipping combos. Less is more. Pick a base like soy sauce or sesame paste and then add on. Want to give your dipping sauce a kick? Add chilies or raw garlic. Tweak it sour? Add vinegar or pickled veggies. Or add fried garlic chips or sesame seeds for texture. Three or four ingredients are enough. Some restaurants post sauce combo suggestions on the wall or menu.
11. Order with intent: If you come to hot pot just for those delicious, umami dipping sauces, just order the cheap stuff — tofu and root veggies — to dunk. That’s cheaper than wasting money on expensive meat and seafood that you’re only using to mop up those sauces.
12. Pro tip: The noodles go in last. You don’t want to get that soup starchy.