Whether you’re celebrating the Chinese New Year or just looking for a reason to gather friends and family for a warming feast, take the plunge this winter with a hot pot party. Offer your guests lavish platters of sliced meats and vegetables, then spend a festive few hours dunking and swishing to your heart’s content.
You can buy specialized pots and burners for hot pot (or jury rig a set up with a portable burner and a heavy pot), but I always recommend begging or borrowing an electric frying pan or wok, which can serve the same purpose. Make sure it’s deep enough that you can fully submerge your items, and remember to top it up once in a while with soup stock.
Shopping for ingredients
Now the fun begins. For those unfamiliar with their local Chinese grocery store, large chains such as T&T Supermarket offer a familiar layout and English speaking employees. For the most part, many supermarkets are arranged in similar ways: refrigerated and frozen products around the walls, then produce and baked goods, then packaged items and non-perishables towards the centre.
Although there may be some variation depending on the store, here’s where you’re most likely to locate your hotpot needs:
- Pre-sliced meats: in the freezer aisle.
- Hot pot soup base: in the soup or condiments aisle.
- Dipping sauces: in the soup or condiments aisle.
- Noodles: in the noodle aisle for dried product, or near the back of the store in the refrigerated tofu section for fresh noodles.
- Vegetables: in the fresh produce section.
- Dumplings and meatballs: in the frozen packaged food area, often by the prepared dim sum area.
- Fresh, frozen or fried tofu: in the refrigerated cases along the back of the store (often where the dairy is found).
To get your ingredients to a perfectly dippable size, a little knife work the night before is in order. You want pieces that will cook through in a few minutes, so that no-one is waiting too long between mouthfuls. A quick flash freeze (20 min or so) will help you get thin, even pieces of meat, sliced across the grain. (If you’ve gone with the pre-sliced options, you can skip ahead to the vegetables — your work is almost done!) Use a sharp knife and different boards to avoid cross contamination, and aim for an abundance of selections: a mix of beef, chicken, pork and lamb are a good start. It’s always better to have too much than too little, and leftovers can be packaged into individual freezer bags for future stir fry dinners. Traditionally, hot pot participants use little wire baskets on long handles to dunk their dinners, so keep the size of your utensils in mind when slicing and prepping.
Large fillets of fish such as salmon or mild whitefish such as cod or halibut can be treated the same way as meat (try to avoid oily, strong tasting fish such as mackerel or anchovies unless you’d like everything cooked afterwards to taste and smell exactly the same.) For shellfish, peel or shuck shrimp, oysters, clams or mussels for perfect bites, or buy shucked and shelled versions to save even more time. Seafood should change colour when cooked, changing from greys to vibrant oranges, pinks and pearly whites.
Don’t forget the vegetables: Napa cabbage, spinach and watercress are easily available in most markets. If you’d like to try something a little different, explore the world of Chinese leafy greens, such as pea shoots or baby bok choy. Mushrooms can add some meatiness for a vegetarian option: shiitakes, king oyster, enoki or even cremini will do in a pinch. Wash all produce well, and dry thoroughly, then divide or slice into bunches or segments. Leafy greens will cook in a couple of minutes and shrink significantly, so precise knife skills aren’t as important here.
Slice any silken or firm tofu into cubes. Fried tofu puffs can be left alone, as they usually come in bite-sized pieces already. Be careful when handling silken tofu, as it is delicate and will fall apart easily.
One final step for prep: sauces can add an extra layer of flavour to your cooked hotpot creations. Although many hot pot sauces can be purchased pre-mixed, it’s easy enough to do at home. You can offer guests the basics — soy sauce, hoisin, sweet bean paste sauce, chili sauce, oil or flakes, finely chopped green onions or coriander, chopped garlic, Sichuan barbecue sauce, sugar, black vinegar, etc. — and let them mix their own creation. Or, if you have time, you can try making chili oil, peanut sauce, or spicy orange sauce for non-traditional, but tasty, options.
A couple of hours before guests arrive, start preparing the broth — the base for all your flavours. A mild, plain stock, either chicken or vegetable, can be a cooking medium all on its own, or add in your sachet of mixed herbs and spices to add complexity (traditional mixes can include jujubes, ginseng and goji berries, among other things). For those who like it more fiery, pre-purchased packages will give you a blazing red broth with chilies bobbing to the surface (for flavouring only).
Setting the table
Now that you’ve gotten the dirty work out of the way — and sanitized your hands and all work surfaces — it’s time to get creative. Although any large platter will do to arrange meats, there are a couple of things to consider to make your cleanup easier. A dishwasher-friendly large plate may be a better choice than an enormous decorative platter, especially if you’re looking to pass ingredients around the table. Look at your dining room layout: if there’s space, using side tables to create stations around the room may be more convenient than trying to fit everything on the main table.
Fan each type of meat out attractively on a platter, and keep meats separate. This helps to not only avoid cross contamination, but also to differentiate between proteins requiring different cooking times.
Vegetables and noodles can be stacked on platters as well, but you’ve probably run out of them by now, so think vertical. Tall bowls or even vases can work in a pinch, and will save you valuable table real estate — you’re going to need it.
Each place setting should have a plate for raw food, a smaller bowl or plate for cooked food, wooden chopsticks and ladles/wire baskets for cooking, and utensils for eating, such as ivory chopsticks or a fork. A small bowl for sauce (or multiple, in case guests want to try a variety) should be included, and a bowl and spoon to enjoy the flavourful broth after all the cooking is done is also an option. Ensure that all guests have easy access to the main event — the hotpot itself — and watch out for trailing extension cords or overloading a single circuit.
You and your guests are now ready to dive in. There’s no need to take turns: hotpot embodies homespun hospitality, so everyone can dunk away together. Ensure that your broth is at a consistent high simmer or low boil to cook food quickly, and top it up as the evening goes on at a leisurely pace. If you’ve got 12 or more people around the table, two or three pots may prevent too many cooks overloading the cooking vessel (and jostling elbows competing for space).
Guests can mix and match ingredients as they see fit, although you may want to have your noodles at the end of the meal to enjoy with the fortified broth. Remind novices to not get too ambitious — one item per basket will help each person to keep track of what they’ve got cooking — and always keep your raw food plate and eating bowl separate.
Pour out cups of soy milk or plum juice to sip while dipping — or for a stronger drink, try a lighter style beer or red wine, a crisp white wine or even champagne, if you’re feeling fancy — and raise a glass to toast the new year. Don’t be surprised if the party’s still going hours later: like many things, time and good company will only improve your meal.
Looking for more Chinese New Year dishes to make at home? Check out these 15 mouth-watering dumpling recipes.