Clinging to the theme of sweaty, shirtless men, we bring you our reflections on hot pot in China.
Women, don’t be repulsed. Men, don’t toss your shirts just yet. Although hot pot (huǒ guō) protocol does not require men to doff their shirts, it’s not uncommon to spy rooms of topless, red-faced men through fogged windows of hot pot restaurants across China.
Do not be deterred. Hot pot – the taste and the experience – is too good to pass up.
Hot Pot Basics
Hot pot (think Chinese style broth fondue) is a simple concept. The steps, roughly:
- Choose your broth: Your choices might include plain broth, spicy, sour or yin-yang split pot where you can enjoy two different styles simultaneously.
- Choose your food: Raw meat, vegetables, noodles, and tofu are usually arranged on skewers or small plates. Some hot pot restaurants allow you to order from a menu, while most others operate open buffet-style whereby you select skewers yourself.
- Do-it-yourself cooking: place the skewers in the broth pot. If your pot is sectioned, you can cook meat and vegetables separately.
- Extracting food: When your food is cooked to your taste, remove your skewers from the broth. Take the food with your chopsticks, drag it through any hot sauces or cooling agents, and chow down.
As you might imagine, hot pot is not only an eating experience, it’s a social activity.
Our best hot pot experiences in China:
“Welcome to China” Hot Pot – Urumqi (Xinjiang Province)
Hot pot is not native to Xinjiang, but the town of Urumqi is where we chose to lose our hot pot virginity. Good choice, too. Our waitress took over when she realized we were neophytes. She held our hands as we chose our skewers from a dazzling array of every meat and green on planet China. She clued us into which greens, noodles, tofu and meat were tastiest and visited our table often to reign in our over- and under-cooking tendencies.
Families from neighboring tables smiled and waved to us as we clumsily made our way through our meal – a lost piece of tofu here and a drowning noodle there.
Although we stumbled in our inaugural experience, we were hooked on hot pot.
Where to Find Hot Pot in Urumqi: Three Flowers and is located on Kelamayi Xilu around the corner from the Silver Birches Hostel (on the left hand side of the street, coming from the Hostel). Look for the big red sign with three dancing cats.
Street-Side Hot Pot – Qingdao (Shandong Province)
We didn't seek hot pot in Qingdao. Instead, it found us at a street corner on a cold, winter night. Makeshift tents covered small groups of people seated at steaming community broth pots bristling with wooden skewers.
We assumed our kindergarten-sized seats next to some young women. We smiled and toasted each other with bottles of locally brewed beer. A hot pot toastmaster (roastmaster?) monitored and rotated the skewers, removing them when the impaled chunks of food were properly cooked.
After filling our stomachs with greens, tofu and fish balls, we counted our empty skewers and paid our satisfyingly small bill.
Where to Find Qingdao Hot Pot: Walk along Jiaozhou Lu towards Zhongshan Lu near Qingdao's old town and look for the small tents with steam pouring out.
The Mother of All Hot Pots: Sichuan Hot Pot – Chengdu (Sichuan Province)
The most (in)famous of hot pots, Sichuan hot pot is an absolute must for any visit to Sichuan Province — and not just because it's home to the highest density of shirtless diners and red faces.
On our second night in Chengdu, we joined some Belgian and Israeli tourists for a full blown hot pot experience. The air just outside the restaurant we chose was arrestingly thick with Sichuan pepper exhaust; the windows were fogged.
We ordered a selection of raw meats, tofu, dumplings and greens from a menu thankfully outfitted with photos. Our waitress placed a large pot of bubbling broth, sectioned with metal dividers, in the middle of the table. Both foreboding and inviting, the broth featured a healthy dose of Sichuan peppers and dried chili flakes that signaled fair warning as they floated on top. A second waitress fixed us concoctions of peanut oil, cilantro, ginger and garlic in small saucers.
Our Israeli travel mate took his first taste of broth-drenched greens. Immediately, red bags of fire welled up under his eyes. In minutes, pepper hives and welts broke out across his face as the full thrust of the Sichuan pepper accelerant took effect.
Sichuan peppers (huā jiāo) impart a mild numbing and tingling sensation. Many love it, some hate it. We quickly became addicts of the “hurts so good” sensation that those potent little pepper corns delivered.
Our Israeli friend had different feelings: “I am doing my part to represent Israel honorably in this international gathering. I might come from the Middle East, but my relatives were Romanian and Polish! I’m not accustomed to such spice!”
The rest of us smiled empathetically. We too were red-faced and unsuccessfully trying to play it cool. Honestly, we wondered whether he’d make it through the evening.
Noticing some distress, our waitress advised that we dab our freshly cooked food with the garlic-cilantro-ginger mixture she fixed for us earlier. The cooling agent’s efficacy at taking the edge off was surprising, ingenious and delicious.
Perspiration, mouths on fire, and shirtless diners may draw images of a torture session rather than a night out of eating pleasure. Don't listen to your instincts. Seize the opportunity that is Sichuan hot pot!
“How about the day after?” you ask? We’ll refrain from excruciating detail. We’re told, however, that peanut milk (huasheng nai) serves as a local hot pot prophylactic; it helps to soothe the stomach.
Where to Find Sichuan Hot Pot in Chengdu: Hot pot restaurants are everywhere in Chengdu. We visited the one around the corner from Mix Hostel. Just ask for a recommendation at your hostel, guest house or hotel.
Hot Pot Social Club – Kaili (Guizhou Province)
We credit a Kaili Tourist Information Office recommendation for this casual, fun, and inexpensive hot pot experience. The energy level was high; it felt like hot pot happy hour.
After stepping inside, we pointed to a pot of fiery broth at another table and settled into the routine: we chose our food, the staff supplied ample beer and water, and we made certain not to overcook our food.
While the waitresses delivered our beers with school-girl giggles, the aging cleaning lady really took care of us. When the rest of the staff wasn’t watching, she snuck over to our table and mixed a Guizhou-style spice bowl with crushed red chilies, spring onions, and a mysterious root. She finished it off with some of our hotpot broth and showed us how to drag our cooked meat and vegetables through the spices before eating.
Who knew that hot pot residue could be so tasty? For us, this took hot pot to a new level. We learned a secret, an ancient Chinese secret. And from the cleaning lady, no less!
After counting our pile of skewers and four beers, the tab for this fabulous food experience: $8 for the two of us.
We returned two nights later for our last meal in Kaili. Huge smiles from the wait staff, photographs of us and of them, and more large groups of young Chinese just having fun.
We departed on a hot pot high.
Where to Find Hot Pot in Kaili: The hot pot restaurant is on the second floor of a modern open-air shopping center, west of Shaoshan Beilu between Yingpan Xilu and Beijing Xilu. Print this and ask people on the street to help you find it. That's what we did.