Hot Pot 火锅’s “Ode to Chongqing Hot Pot”

As I mentioned in my first blog post, Chongqing is famous for its hot pot meals. Though it’s possible to get hot pot throughout the world (including Portland), we’ve been told that the dish originated in Chongqing. Hot pot is both spicy-hot and burn-your-tongue hot, and eating it is definitely a unique experience worthy of a short blog post.

Chongqing hot pot, ready to spice up your night. (Photo: Derek Dauphin)

What is Hot Pot?

At the most basic level, it is a large pot of boiling stock, into which you put meat and vegetables to cook until they are done. There are different kinds of hot pot depending on what city you’re in. Chongqing’s version of hot pot is unique in its spiciness and flavor – the special ingredient is Sichuan pepper. I have tried to figure out a way to explain how the spices taste, but the dish is known as “numb and spicy,” and I think that pretty accurately describes it.

I’ve tried them and they actually taste like hot pot. (Image: Kelly Parker)

When we eat hot pot, there is a big pot with a little pot inside of it. The big pot contains spicy broth, while a small pot at the center contains a milder version. As for what you eat, there are a variety of options. You can cook pretty much anything in the pot, though fish and meat seem to be the most popular, with selections ranging from whole fish to shrimp balls to pig head to strips of thinly-sliced beef. It’s always entertaining to try and figure out what we’re eating, and I have eaten some food out of the hot pot that I wasn’t able to identify.

How to Eat Hot Pot

The first step in eating hot pot is to create a dipping sauce. This is important, especially if you don’t like spicy food that much, since a properly-crafted sauce can help to cut the hot pot heat. I tend toward the peanut sauce with a little chili sauce.

Dipping sauce creation station.  I’m a big fan of this aspect of the meal.

Once you get your sauce, you head back to the table. The broth has already been boiling for a while, so you stick some raw food in the pot to cook. Sometimes there are some fried doughy rice pastries to enjoy until the other food is ready.

Today, I learned that searching for pictures of “Chinese rice dough pastry” will yield all sorts of tasty-looking treats. These ones resemble the pre-hot pot pastries we’ve had in Chongqing, with the addition of crushed nuts on top.

Once the food is cooked, you grab something with your chopsticks (or a giant spoon, if you aren’t so good with your chopsticks), douse it in some of your previously-made dipping sauce, and go to town. It should be noted that hot pot can be quite messy. (Hint: Dishsoap can remove oil from clothing.)

Hot pot is not fast food – it’s a relaxed, social meal. This seems to be true for many group meals we’ve had – dishes are shared (either in hot pot form or using a giant Lazy Susan) and the meal is an event. Every time we’ve had hot pot, there has been beer brought out about half-way through the meal, and people will trade toasts (at the table and sometimes between tables) until the hot pot flame has long been turned off and the meal is over.

Eating hot pot with some CAUPD  West colleagues. The entire office went out to celebrate the President of CAUPD visiting the  Chongqing office.

Though Chongqing’s hot pot spices might be an acquired taste for some, I think the whole experience is quite enjoyable. I’m no stranger to making a mess during a meal, and I enjoy the social time with my colleagues. I also like to try new foods, and hot pot provides plenty of opportunities to do so!

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