Years ago, on one of my first trips to Taipei, the friend I was staying with took me to a hot pot place like I’d never encountered before. Almost as soon as we were seated, my friend was gesturing for me to stand up again, and I followed her through a maze of booths, past other customers and around to the back of the restaurant into another room. There, I stood before tall refrigerators with shelves brimming with meat, seafood, vegetables, noodles, tofu, dumplings, and more. I gaped, stunned at the abundance. “What do I do?” I asked.
My friend looked at me like there was something wrong with me. “Grab a plate,” she said. “Get whatever you want.”
As we returned to our table and began sliding cabbage and slices of uncooked beef into the steaming yuan yang pot (a hot pot split in two for different broths), I wondered what magical wardrobe world I had stepped into. Everything was delicious: The spicy broth was tingly with Sichuan peppercorns and chiles, flavored with stinky tofu and duck’s blood at my friend’s request; the clear pork broth was the perfect contrast for when I wanted something more delicate. After about an hour and a half, bellies full from multiple return trips to the fridges, we went to the dessert coolers and served ourselves from a selection of 12 flavors of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, in addition to fruit and other sweets. This was my first experience with Mala Hot Pot (馬辣頂級麻辣鴛鴦火鍋).
Today, the chain is still my favorite for a big get-together. When my sister came to visit me last summer, I insisted the best way for her to meet all my friends would be to go to Mala Hot Pot. When one of my friends wanted a birthday dinner for 12, I knew where to make a reservation. And after a long soak with friends at a hot springs hotel, there was little debate over where to end our evening.
Mala Hot Pot was my introduction to the space hot pot dining occupies in modern Taipei life. The city is dotted with hundreds of hot pot restaurants, some featuring all-you-can-eat deals, others catering to single diners, and those that specialize in a certain, high-quality ingredient like beef imported from America or Australia. Despite the dizzying variety of Taipei’s hot pot options, what they all offer are intimacy, fun, and bubbling vats overflowing with food.
At its most basic, hot pot — huo guo (火鍋) in Mandarin — is a simple dish in which a pot of heated broth is placed in the center of a communal table for diners to toss in various uncooked meat, seafood, and vegetables. When the food is ready, it’s fished out with a ladle or chopsticks and dipped in a sauce of the diner’s own concoction. Think fondue, except instead of chocolate, cheese, or oil, you simmer your meal in soup. Hot pot is traditionally a winter dish, shared by families and friends during Taiwan’s cold, rainy months, but thanks to high-powered air conditioning, it has become popular year-round.
As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I hated hot pot. It required too much waiting and too much work. We had to wait while my mother’s broth of chicken stock and ginger, goji, shiitake, and dates came to a boil in a large, wok-shaped electric pot. We had to wait again while the food cooked. And even after removing each bite from the broth, we still had to make our own sauce to add more flavor. I didn’t get it.
In college, my opinion began to change. Far from my family during the Lunar New Year of my freshman year at Barnard College, I trekked to Manhattan’s Chinatown with a group of Chinese and Taiwanese friends and we took over two large tables at a hot pot restaurant. While we passed platters of meat and dumplings back and forth, we chatted and laughed, our faces partially obscured by the steam emanating from the pot. At the end of the meal, my insides warm and heavy with broth, I looked around and felt lucky to have a chosen family, a community who understood my culture, even away from home. For the years that followed — through the rest of college and beyond — I had hot pot with friends many times, sometimes at all-you-can eat restaurants and sometimes huddled around a communal pot in someone’s dorm room. The meal became not just an excuse to gather, but an expression of togetherness rooted in our longing for home.
Implicit in traditional hot pot is a sense of intimacy and egalitarianism. There is no head chef. Anyone can slide a plate of bamboo shoots or baby corn into the boiling broth; anyone can ladle out food. The intimacy comes, of course, from sitting and sharing a meal, but also because everyone is eating from the same vessel. Throughout the meal, diners check on the food. Your companions might call out, “The radish is done!” or, “Eat the meat! It’s overcooking!” while heaping food into your bowl. They might take the initiative to skim the cloudy fat off the top of the broth. The act of eating hot pot requires diners to communicate, interact, learn to trust, and take comfort from one another.
There is also the simple symbolism of “roundness.” In Chinese and Taiwanese culture, roundness, the circle — yuan — symbolizes unity and reunion, with the word tuan yuan (團圓) meaning to reunite with family. When you eat hot pot, the bubbling cauldron of broth is round, the table you sit at is often round, and you’re seated around it with friends and family. It makes sense that it’s the favored family reunion meal or tuan yuan fan (團圓飯) for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (中秋節), a holiday that celebrates the full harvest moon.
In the middle of my fourth month of living in Taiwan, I came down with a bout of bronchitis that dragged on for weeks. While I was still getting over the illness, I met some other American friends to try ginger duck for the first time. Even though I had barely slept the night before, I insisted we go; it was mid-March, and ginger duck is available only during the winter months.
One side of the restaurant we went to, Bawei Ginger Duck (霸味薑母鴨), opened out onto the sidewalk, with tables full of diners seated on stools and spilling into the street. The utensils and beer were self-serve, the fermented tofu sauce and soy sauce were in plastic squeeze bottles, and raucous groups of young and old Taiwanese diners chattered enthusiastically around us. While not strictly considered hot pot, ginger duck is served in a similar manner: We ordered broth and ingredients off a simple ticket, mostly duck parts — heart, liver, intestines, meatballs — plus corn, mushrooms, cabbage, and a side of rice noodles tossed in sesame oil and sprinkled with fried shallots. We did not order the menu’s most expensive item, the duck testicles, although I would end up trying them on another visit. (For those curious, they’re shaped like large kidney beans and have the flavor and texture of scrambled eggs wrapped in sausage casing.) The servers brought coals for the table’s inset burner, and then a large pot filled with mushrooms, duck meatballs, corn, and pieces of bone-in duck meat. Other items, like the duck parts and cabbage, were brought on plates for us to cook as the broth came to a boil.
While waiting for the vegetables and duck parts to cook, I ladled myself some of the soup. It made me gasp: The flavor was rich with ginger and duck. In Chinese medicine, ginger is considered “warming,” something to ward off colds, ease menstrual cramps, and bring heat back to chilled bones. For me, after fighting bronchitis, the broth seemed like a miracle remedy, opening my sinuses and restoring the energy I’d been coughing up. By the time I was dipping meatballs and crunchy strips of duck intestine in fermented tofu sauce, I felt better than I had in weeks.
When I asked my Taiwanese friends why they love hot pot, almost all of them mentioned the comfort and convenience. One noted that it’s popular in Taiwan to say that there are two seasons — hot pot season (winter) and grill season (summer). Judging by the lines at Taipei’s best-known hot pot restaurants, though, the sweltering humid months don’t diminish its popularity.
Despite the meal’s roots in communal eating, convenience is a major factor behind the success of individual hot pot restaurants. For city dwellers, and particularly for busy, tired young professionals, personal-sized hot pots can be a quick and healthy meal that also sparks nostalgia for gathering with friends and family. With ingredients already prepared, it can be more practical than buying large quantities of vegetables and meat for one person to take home.
Hot pot restaurants also tend to stay open later than other establishments. Despite Taipei’s status as a modern city, many restaurants close by 9 p.m. Hot pot restaurants, however — along with re chao eateries known for quick, greasy comfort food — might remain open as late as 2 in the morning. For those looking for a late-night outing with friends, hot pot is often the best option.
I suspect there’s a third reason for hot pot’s popularity — its value. Taiwanese food blogs tout hot pot restaurants that offer diverse, high-quality, all-you-can-eat ingredients and those known for a la carte and set menu options featuring large platters of mixed seafood and imported meat at affordable prices. My friends sometimes debate which all-you-can-eat options offer the largest varieties of vegetables and the best shellfish, and which include wine and beer. Once, I watched a friend maximize his AYCE hot pot meal by devoting his entire two-hour session to peeling and then boiling prawns and crab claws.
Over the three years I’ve lived in Taipei, hot pot has become inextricably woven into the narrative of my life. When I was first getting to know my new Taiwanese friends, many of whom I met through a running group, they invited me to Lian Jin Pickled Cabbage Pork Northeast Pot (連進酸菜白肉鍋), a chain specializing in the sour-salty broth that is a specialty in Northeastern China. After our first relay race in Taipei, my team and I went to Chao Rau Sukiyaki (潮肉壽喜燒) to celebrate, replenishing spent calories and protein with thin slices of meat blanched in a sweet mirin and soy sauce broth and then dredged in raw egg.
When I was going through an egg-freezing procedure in Taipei, I was giving myself daily hormone injections that made hot pot the only food I could stomach without getting nauseous. I ate it for every meal, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, thankful for Taipei’s wide array of broths and styles. Although at the time I had trouble with seafood-based broths, I particularly loved stone hot pot, where they first saute your meat with sesame and onion in a cast-iron and stone pot. After the half-raw meat has released its juices, they put it aside for you to cook later, then pour in the broth. This extra step gives the pot a richer and more fragrant flavor.
These days, my friends laugh at my love for hot pot — I eat it at least once a week, sometimes more. I’ve tried white pepper broth, milk broth, chicken broth with rice wine. I’ve tried decadent, high-end restaurants where marbled cuts of American beef are arranged to look like roses and large lobsters are served over a bowl of ice. I’ve eaten at nondescript spots that serve stinky tofu and duck blood in tiny, stainless-steel pots warmed by Sterno canisters. I’ve been to places where all the ingredients are organic, where they boast 20 different types of imported meat, where you are given appetizers and desserts with your set meal, and where they only serve a single type of stewed lamb. I’ve made hot pot at home, slurping noodles over my burner, and I’ve eaten it at friends’ houses, with each guest bringing different ingredients while the host provides broth.
This year, on Lunar New Year’s Eve, I found myself eating with a group of strangers at an Airbnb in Chishang. My father and I had escaped to this small town in Eastern Taiwan for the holiday, assuming we’d enjoy a quiet meal that evening at any eatery that was still open. But our hosts had insisted: They would prepare a New Year’s Eve meal for their guests, including backpackers from Taipei, cyclists from Ireland, teachers from Yilan, neighbors from right there in Chishang, and us, two Taiwanese Americans. The meal was, of course, hot pot — two of them, filled with vegetables and meat, one with clear chicken broth and one with spiced lamb broth. As we slurped soup and passed plates heaped with cabbage, sticky rice, and pork, we chatted with these new friends. In Taiwan, hot pot is a comfort food, one that brings people together. For me, it is even more specific: hot pot represents my sense of belonging. It’s a taste of the places I call home, both the one in which I grew up and the one I’ve adopted.
The Ins and Outs of Eating Hot Pot
The Pot Itself: For centuries, hot pot was served in a donut-shaped copper pot with a fluted chimney in the center, a design that probably originated from the Mongolians, who are often credited with the dish’s creation nearly 1,000 years ago. (Although archeological evidence suggests that hot pot’s origins may date back more than 2,000 years, and the precise history has almost as many variations as the dish itself.) Back then, the chimney allowed steam from the coals burning in an opening below to escape. Now, most hot pot is served in metal pots over electric plates that are inset so that the top of the pot is flush with the table (to prevent accidental tipping) or on top of burners. You may still find pots that are traditional in shape at pickled cabbage chains and restaurants boasting Mongolian-style hot pot, and coals being used at ginger-duck restaurants.
The Broth: Unless you’re going to a hot pot restaurant that specializes in one kind of broth, many will offer a variety of broths to choose from. These may include:
- Shabu (a clear, basic broth, generally made from bonito and kombu, though sometimes made with chicken bones, pork bones, or dried cod), sometimes called shua shua
- Mala (spicy numbing, flavored with chiles and Sichuan peppercorns)
- Herbal/Chinese medicine (made with Chinese herbs that are good for you, such as goji berries)
- Pickled cabbage (sour and salty)
- Pork bone (a milky, pork-based broth)
- Vegetable (lighter)
- Kombu (seaweed-based)
- Milk (made by simmering milk with a bit of butter, garlic, onion, vegetables, and sometimes thinned out with stock)
- White pepper (a different kind of spicy)
- Sukiyaki (sweeter soy, similar to teriyaki)
- Miso (miso paste dissolved in clear broth)
- Kimchi (spicy and sour)
The Condiment Bar: Making the perfect sauce is critical. Most hot pot restaurants feature a condiment bar with tubs of different sauces and fixings. Common options include: soy sauce, black vinegar, Japanese soy sauce (slightly sweeter and lighter than regular soy sauce), white vinegar, sha cha paste (a gritty “barbecue sauce” made of shallots, garlic, dried shrimp, dried fish, and chiles), sesame oil, sesame paste, chile oil, chopped scallions, chopped garlic, cilantro, sliced chiles, grated daikon, and sesame seeds. Grab one (or more) of the little bowls nearby and start experimenting. My favorite combo involves a balance of soy sauce, Japanese soy sauce, sesame oil, sha cha sauce, fresh chile or chile oil, chopped garlic, scallions, lemon juice (or black vinegar), a small spoonful of sugar, and a whole raw egg, beaten.
Shared-pot Etiquette: This varies, depending on how close you are with your fellow diners. Most restaurants provide tongs and ladles, so no one ends up sticking their chopsticks in the pot. The more conscientious places have separate chopsticks or tongs for placing raw meat in the broth and for removing it after it’s cooked. Some groups take a free-for-all approach to eating — that is, they empty a full plate of an ingredient like cabbage or beef into the broth and then individuals fish out what they want. In other groups, individual diners may prefer to cook their own food.
Tips on Eating: The trick is to constantly balance what’s ready to eat and what’s cooking, without letting anything get overdone. Make sure to put in ingredients that take a while — root vegetables, corn — first, while constantly refilling with cabbage and tofu. Meat is thinly sliced so it cooks quickly! A few swishes with a chopstick should be enough.
Skim the Fat: After a while, meat eaters may notice a grayish film start to cloud their soup. This is from fat from the meat, and while edible, many people don’t enjoy it. Most places will provide a skimmer ladle — somewhat thin and made with wire mesh — so that you can remove the fat and throw it in a bowl to be discarded.
Turn Down the Heat and Ask for More Soup: After the initial boil, you’ll want to turn the hot pot down to a simmer so that the soup doesn’t cook away completely. That soup will get more robust and nuanced as you cook things in it, so you want to hold onto it for as long as possible. That said, there will be a point where the soup boils down enough that it will be too shallow to cook in. Feel free to wave your server over and ask for a refill. In most cases, they’ll fill it with the most basic broth, no matter what broth you started with, so your original broth may become watered down.
Doggie Bag It: Many restaurants will let you take home the soup and even the leftover ingredients (assuming it’s not an all-you-can-eat business) if you can’t finish. Restaurants also often offer carry-out broth.
Karissa Chen is editor-in-chief of Hyphen magazine and is working on a novel. She splits her time between New Jersey and Taipei.
Sean Marc Lee is a portraiture, lifestyle, editorial and street fashion photographer who splits his time between Taipei, Tokyo, and Los Angeles.