Hotpot! Steamboat! Firepot! Chinese fondue! Whatever you call it, it’s a great communal and social meal, particularly suited to colder weather. It’s also quite a celebratory meal suitable for Chinese New Year, the hotpot supposedly symbolizing the coming together of family and friends. We had one with close friends on Chinese New Year eve last Saturday and it was a good night, with everyone stuffing themselves silly. I love the interactivity of the meal, the casualness of it too, the time there is to chat while the food cooks.

I’m terrible at taking photos when I’m hosting but here’s most of the setup in the photo below (vegetables and noodles were on another table).

Chinese New Year Eve Hotpot Setup

I thought I’d throw together a general guide to having (Chinese) hotpot at home that’s mainly based on what I grew up with though I’ll also list some of the variations I’ve come across from my experience and in my research. Needless to say, this is not a be-all and end-all guide to hotpot – I don’t even cover the Japanese, Vietnamese or Thai variants!

First, the setup:

Setup: Pot on a butane burner, pot on an induction heater, electric hotpot, electric wok, rice cooker.

Base: Water, broth/stock, tom yum, Sichuan mala, herbal, mushroom, satay stock, congee.

I’ve had anywhere from 2 to 10 people around one large pot set in the middle of a table! I use a butane burner I purchased from a Korean supermarket and each of the butane canisters (about £1.50 each) last about 3 hours. I know friends who have a tabletop induction heater or electric hotpot. As students, we just brought out our rice cookers and used those!

For a base, I usually use water or a broth but it’s quite easy to go with a tom yum, herbal or mushroom broth too. I’ve not made a Sichuan mala base from scratch but there are packets you can buy from any good Chinese supermarket that you can just dump into water to generate your fiery inferno. Some people get one of those divided pots that let you have two different soup bases but having a dedicated pot for hotpot is not possible in our tiny flat!

The main benefit of having a water or broth base is the ridiculously rich broth you get after cooking all of your ingredients in there. At the end of the meal, you can toss in eggs, noodles and/or cooked rice to generate a fabulous soup.

I conducted an informal survey on Twitter on what broth is popular for hotpot at home and I thank everyone who answered! @GarySoup has a half and half pot, half Sichuan mala and the other half is just plain water. @hollowlegs also opts for two flavours: super spicy and a herbal broth. It’s also Sichuan mala broth all the way for @christineyeo. @mummyicancook uses a spicy seafood stock (yum!) or a pork and chicken and dried scallop broth. @applelisafood uses a kombu broth for the Japanese shabu shabu or tom yum or the ever popular Sichuan mala! @noodlesue goes simple with a clear chicken broth. @mangolisa also plays mix and match – sometimes it’s tom yum, other times ikan bilis (a broth using Malaysian dried anchovies) and most of the time it’s chicken. @food_blogger never uses ikan bilis and always uses a pork and chicken broth. Finally, @garlicconfit builds up lots of fresh flavour with chicken, ginger, spring onion and coriander. As you can see, there’s no one single correct hotpot base!

For my broth last weekend, I used a few chicken wings, a couple of dried scallops and some chunks of daikon for sweetness.

Now onto the ingredients.

Meats and Seafood: pork, beef, lamb, chicken, Spam, ham, minced meat for meatballs, fish balls, prawn balls, cuttlefish balls, fish cake, prawns, sliced fish, squid, octopus, cuttlefish, crab sticks, crab.

Vegetables: Chinese leaf, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, gai lan, choi sum, tong ho, ong choi, bok choy, pea shoots, lotus root, spinach, shiitake mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, button mushrooms, straw mushrooms, taro.

Other: Soft tofu, firm tofu, fried tofu, gluten balls, eggs, quail eggs, rice vermicelli, mung bean threads, udon noodles, egg dumplings, dumplings, beancurd sheets.

Having all of those ingredients in those lists above is a bit of overkill! However, a good selection from the Meats and Seafood, Vegetables and Other would be what I suggest. Everything should be in relative bite-sized pieces so they’ll cook quickly and evenly. Meats are best when sliced thinly – it’s not that easy to do at home and so I purchase them ready sliced. These may be found at some Asian supermarkets (I’ve seen them at Chinese, Korean and Japanese ones) and try looking in both in the fresh and frozen food sections.

I rather enjoy laying out the ingredients in a pleasing manner but if I do feel lazy, everything just gets dumped into a bowl.

What else should there be at the table?

Utensils: Chopsticks, spoons, bowls, small dishes for dips, hotpot strainers or slotted spoons, ladle.

Sauces/Dips: sesame oil, sesame paste, chilli oil, chopped coriander, minced garlic, soy sauce, black vinegar, sliced spring onions.

Set out chopsticks, a spoon and a bowl and a small dish for dips for each person. If you don’t have hotpot strainers, you can use slotted spoons though you’ll have to share and there may be impatience, especially when a choice item is scooped up.

For the sauces, lay out what you have – these are just suggestions! Lately, I’ve been mixing up a dip mixture of sesame paste or oil, chilli oil (and the sediment), coriander, a touch of soy and black vinegar.

Finally, how to partake of hotpot! Set your stock to boil in the pot and slowly add your ingredients. Try starting with the meats and seafood first and then finishing with the vegetables and noodles and eggs, when the broth has had time to develop. If you have some cooked rice, adding it to the rich broth at the end makes for a delicious soup, maybe even with a beaten egg?

Don’t put everything in at once. Add a few things, let them cook, fish them out, dip and eat. Repeat until you explode. As time goes on, you’ll likely need to top up the stock with hot water or more hot stock. You’ll also need to adjust the temperature of the pot to prevent it from overboiling or staying still and stagnant.

The photos below are of a hotpot setup from a previous year. This was just for two, which shows you that you can have hotpot for any number!

The Table

The Steamboat Setup

If you can’t be fussed to have it at home, many Chinese restaurants are now serving it (of course, it does end up being more economical at home!). To have hotpot in a restaurant in London, I recommend Sichuan restaurant in Acton for mala hotpot and Little Lamb in Chinatown. I’ve also heard good things about Tian Fu‘s all-you-can-eat mala hotpot and Mongolian Grill‘s wide range of broths in Clapham Common. The Randomness Guide to London also has an auto-generated list of places they’ve reviewed that serve hotpot.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. What else do you enjoy about hotpot and what ingredients or soup bases are a must in your home?