火锅 (huǒ guō) is less of a dish than it is an experience. Think of it as an adaptation of the stone soup fairy tale: you team up with a group of friends to cook an array of ingredients—thinly sliced meats, mushrooms, head-on shrimp, Chinese lettuces, fresh noodles, and more—in a single pot of simmering, seasoned broth heated on an induction burner or electric range. Once cooked to your liking, you dip it in the sauce of choice and eat it. Rinse and repeat until extremely full.
There are as many variations on hot pot as there are households in China, but there are definitely distinct regional styles. The original, introduced to East Asia thousands of years ago by the Mongolian Empire, was a simple broth served with horse meat and mutton.
There are a few things to keep in mind as you and your friends dig in. First, cook your ingredients gradually and try to pace it to your eating speed. Remember that the food will be hot when you pull it out, so keep things leisurely, and make sure you wait for the soup to get boiling again between batches. Definitely use the handheld baskets or designated long cooking chopsticks to retrieve your food so you’re not using the same utensils to eat and cook.
Different foods have different cook times. For example, mushrooms might take 5-8 minutes while thin slices of meat will overcook and become tough if boiled longer than 10 seconds. The good rule of thumb is to let hearty, tough greens ride in the pot to soften up while you dip and eat smaller, quicker ingredients. If you’re not sure about your cooking skills, just invite a knowledgeable friend who can take the lead!
Occasionally, your server may bring over a pitcher of broth and replenish your pot with it. If this happens, don’t panic! They’re just rebalancing the flavors and making sure you’re not just sucking down pure spicy oil with your noodles.