A Pedacito of Chinese Hotpot
While living in China, I found that the one area where Chinese people have the most pride is in their food. Chinese food has flavor combinations and ingredients that can’t be found in any other country’s cuisine, and the Chinese people are keenly aware of this fact.
A perfect example of this unique culinary culture can be found in the traditional Chinese hotpot. I’m not sure if the comparison is accurate, but it seemed to me that Chinese people go to hotpot restaurants as frequently as Americans might go to Sizzler, Chili’s, Outback, or any other similar chain restaurant.
Hotpot seems to be the go-to choice for Chinese people of all ages. Don’t feel like cooking at home? Go to a hotpot restaurant. Need to feed a family or group of people of varying ages and food preferences? Go to hotpot.
My first experience trying hotpot did not disappoint. The first thing I noticed upon entering the restaurant was how empty it was. I usually stay away from empty restaurants while in foreign countries because it has always seemed like a surefire sign that an empty restaurant is a bad restaurant.
I brought this up with my Chinese friend, who assured me that we were just early. Sure enough, by the time we left the restaurant, it was completely packed with customers from all walks of life.
The first step in the hotpot process involves ordering your broth. There are several types of cooking broth to choose from. Usually, a table will order one type of spicy broth and one milder version. After the broth and drinks have been ordered, we made our way to the buffet.
Much of the buffet was similar to any buffet you might find in America. There was a salad section with different fruits and vegetables. There was a seafood section full of assorted sushi and raw shellfish. A dessert section offered various puddings and cakes. And then came the foods for cooking.
This is where things can get a bit different from any kind of American buffet. In small dishes, one can find various cuts of meats and vegetables. Some of the meats and vegetables are familiar, such as steak, strips of chicken, mushrooms, and broccoli. Some of the meats and vegetables are unidentifiable for most westerners.
I made a decision not to only choose the foods I could easily identify, choosing instead to pull cuts of meat that were less familiar. Once I had a full tray of various raw foods, I brought them back to the table, where I discovered two boiling caldrons of thick broth were waiting for us.
For the next two hours, we used spoons to transfer our raw foods to the broth and let them cook for several minutes each. If you have ever tried cooking fondue, the experience is similar. I personally love cooking my own food table-side.
My first experience with hotpot was fantastic. I ended up going to a hotpot restaurant at least once per week while I was living in China. It was always cheap, and the food always felt both adventurous and satisfying.
One of my Chinese friends has since moved to America and was excited to learn that hotpot restaurants are now starting to pop up in American cities. She tried one and said that it was authentic.
If you ever get a chance to visit China, I highly recommend going to one of these restaurants to see the kind of food that Chinese people consider one of their staples. However, if you don’t think you can make it to China anytime soon and want to give hotpot a try, keep an eye out for traditional Chinese hotpot restaurants coming to your own neighborhood.
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