If I had to leave China tomorrow, (which as an expat is always a possibility!), the one thing I would truly miss would be Hou Guo - Hot Pot. Although I love eating barbecued lamb and sauteed eggplant, Hot Pot is my favorite because it is much more than just food. It is an experience.

Some people call Hot Pot "Chinese Fondue" and I guess that is accurate. Hot Pot basically consists of a big, boiling pot of broth and lots of plates of raw veggies and meats that get dumped in the broth until cooked. When they're ready, you fish the foods out with your chopsticks. Here's a closer look at Hot Pot components:

1 The Pot and Broth:

Hot Pot

A Typical Hot Pot

Pots come in different styles. The one above has space for two different broths. The plainest hot pot consists of only one section for one broth. A favorite design is called "love birds." You can see that kind in the photo below.

Just as there are different style pots, there are different style broths. In the photo above, the broth base is tomato. In the center section, hot chili has been added to the tomato. Broths can be made from chicken, seafood, lamb or vegetable. Usually ginger, tomato, mushrooms, dates and other flavors are added to the broth. You can eat these additions or just leave them in the pot. Broths can be very spicy or not spicy at all. How spicy do you think this Hot Pot was?

Sichuan Hot Pot

Sichuan Style Hot Pot in Chengdu, China. The hotter the better!

Spicy

Chili Oil, Dried Chilies and Sichuan Peppercorns

Sichuan style Hot Pot is one of the most popular styles. It is hot! hot! hot! Sichuan province (in Southwestern China, where the earthquake happened last year. Sichuan Chinese food is popular in the US, you might have seen it written as Szechuan.) is known for it's spicy delicious food. Some Chinese say that all the girls in Sichuan are beautiful because of the hot chilies. Sichuan Hot Pot features lots of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. These are not your average peppercorns, however. When you eat one, you will encounter a strange sensation: suddenly, your tongue will feel numb and tingly at the same time. I don't like it but my husband loves them.

2 What Goes In:

Food

Food waiting for the pot

The only annoying part of eating Hot Pot is getting the foods we want ordered. Most Hot Pot restaurants hand you a paper printout with all the available foods and you just pencil in how many of each you want. Great for most, but since we don't read Chinese it just doesn't work for us! If we are not dining with a Chinese speaker, we must cajole the waitress in writing down our choices for us. Sounds easy enough, but sometimes it takes some convincing!

There are so many foods that you can put in the Hot Pot. Our favorites are: mushrooms (as many different kinds as the restaurant has), potatoes sliced thin, lotus root sliced thin, cabbage or spinach leaves, noodles (we love fat noodles made from sweet potato), and a selection of meats (beef and lamb) sliced very thin. Once the pot of broth is boiling, whole plates of food are slipped into the pot. Cooking time varies according to thickness and type of food. When placing the meat in the broth, it is important to keep the chopsticks dipped into the boiling broth for a minute to kill any microbes. When the food is ready, just grab it. The meat usually goes very fast. Sometimes we have chopstick wars where we try to steal the meat out of our friend's chopsticks. I am terrible at this.

3 The Dipping Sauce:

The foods will come out of the pot very hot. Especially the mushrooms. One way to cool the food quickly is to use a dipping sauce that you can quickly dunk the food in before eating it. There are different kinds of dipping sauce, but two prevail as the most popular. One is a sesame sauce, made from ground sesame seeds mixed with water. Another is chopped garlic mixed with oil. I prefer the sesame sauce. It is faintly reminiscent of peanut butter. If you have ever used Tahini, well, this is pretty much the same thing.

Dipping Sauce

Sesame Paste Dipping Sauce

Hot Pot is a communal dining experience. While nearly all Chinese meals are communal, dishes could be eaten individually. Hot Pot is something that you must eat together with a group of friends. Hot Pot encourages laughter - especially when your chopstick skills fail and you just can't get what you want out of the pot. At the end of the meal, we usually take a vote to see who gets the Hot Pot prize. Judging consists of measuring the amount of spillage between the pot and each person's plate. The more spillage, the better you do. Hot Pot meals also take a long time ensuring a long full evening of conversation and good times. This post makes me hungry. I guess I know what I'll be eating this weekend.

Another Hot Pot

Another Hot Pot Meal (with Love Bird pot)

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