Hot Pot: The Mother of All Celebratory Dishes

Feature image for post about hot pot

There was a time in my childhood that I did not enjoy eating hot pot. (Cue gasp of disbelief from Asians around the world.) It felt too fussy, too much of a hassle, and just plain took too much time to eat. All I wanted was to be a normal, American TV family where food was nicely doled out on identical plates and placed in front of every member of the family. Sadly, my parents did not understand this penchant of mine and would callously continue setting up the table as I sat there, pouting about the fact that hot pot was the answer to, “What’s for dinner?”

Fortunately, I’ve wised up a lot since then. And now, every time a major holiday comes up, hot pot almost always makes an appearance at the family dining table. In fact, given that it’s somewhat of a rare occurrence now for all five of us to be home together, someone almost always suggests a hot pot night before everyone returns to their respective places.

Why?

Because hot pot is easy. (Contrary to what I thought as a kid.)

You gather a bunch of raw ingredients, chop them up to roughly bite-sized pieces (unless it’s a leafy vegetable, in which case you usually just keep the whole leaf intact and wrestle with it later once it’s cooked), and then assemble them around a pot of soup broth. Now all that’s left to do is wait for the broth to boil and then start throwing things into it to cook.

If you’re unfamiliar with this tradition of cooking things at the table and then unwittingly find yourself at a hot pot restaurant, you might be a bit surprised, disgruntled even. What? I pay to come eat and they don’t even cook my food for me? What madness is this??

This leads to my second point about why hot pot is so excellent.

Hot pot is fun.

Rather than think of it as something that requires cooking, think of hot pot as an interactive experience. Those of you who hate cooking or preparing food may beg to differ, but just think back to the days when you were a little kid and loved playing with your food. (And don’t tell me you didn’t, because everyone was a little kid once and every little kid has played with food before.) Remember those days of throwing cereal at the floor? Swishing your spoon around and around your bowl until rice went flying everywhere? Or making an artistic food mountain on your plate that you never intended to eat? (All of these likely earned you some sort of disciplinary action, especially if you had Asian parents, but that’s another topic altogether.)

Guess what, hot pot allows you to do all of those things. You throw ingredients into the pot to be cooked, swish pieces of meat in the soup until it’s ready to eat, and create a food mountain on your plate by pulling out your favorite food items from the pot before someone else eats them. Sure, it’s a little more civilized, but it’s effectively the same thing. And the best part is, you’re not alone.*

*There are hot pot restaurants that focus on individual pots and therefore make it easy for solo diners to enjoy hot pot. But at least you’re still doing it with other people in the restaurant.

Hot pot brings people together.

Fancy hot pot
Hot pot can get fancy too. Just know it is not the norm.

Hot pot is best enjoyed with other people, especially since its most traditional form is a singular communal pot that everyone cooks in and eats from. If you’re a germaphobe, you might be getting the heebie-jeebies just thinking about a concept like this. But you can’t deny that sharing this kind of experience is basically a fool-proof way to get people together and create a little community right at the table. Even if it’s only temporary, at least for that hour (or three, if we’re being real), you’re sharing the most basic of human needs (EATING FOOD) with other humans. And if that doesn’t bring you together, I’m not sure what will.

So, great. Hot pot is an easy, fun experience that brings people together. What does it have to do with celebrations?

Hot pot basically IS a celebration.

At its core, a celebration most often involves a group of people taking part in a shared cause. And with hot pot, it most often involves a group of people taking part in a shared cause (of eating). So by this line of logic, hot pot = celebration. And I would argue that there’s actually a bigger opportunity with hot pot to make everyone happy. Because rather than sticking to a suite of traditional celebratory dishes, depending on whatever holiday or festival you’re celebrating, hot pot is a flexible, adaptable eating experience that allows for everyone to eat what they want with little fear of offending others. Which brings me to my last point:

Hot pot is for everyone.

If you’re at a hot pot restaurant, everything is a choice and almost nothing is predetermined. Can’t eat spicy? Choose a non-spicy broth. Don’t like vegetables? Don’t order them and go to town on the meat options. Vegetarian? You’re in luck, as there’s plenty of veggie and non-meat options that ensure you’ll still get some protein and other means of sustenance. (Think things like tofu, bean curd, mushrooms, starchy vegetables, noodles, etc.) Hot pot is meant to be customizable and the hardest thing might actually be choosing what NOT to have.

And if you’re making hot pot at home, you’re in even more control. There are a few key supplies you’ll need for the experience to be complete, but this is by far my favorite way to enjoy hot pot. Go out and get a portable induction cooktop, a large pot, and you are good to go. These days, there are also pre-made packages of hot pot stock, most often found in Asian grocery stores, that people can use to make hot pot. So if you’re still on the fence about trying it out, this gives you a great reason to do so.

My family’s home hot pot experience tends to include lots and lots of vegetables (courtesy of my mom, who always makes sure we get our veggies in), a light, clean broth, and equal servings of pork and lamb slices (as my dad doesn’t eat beef). If it’s a holiday, we’ll likely crack open a bottle of wine or champagne. Although let’s be honest, even without the holiday excuse, we’re just as likely to crack open a bottle or two.

With Christmas, New Year’s, and then Chinese New Year all coming up in rapid succession, I have no doubt we will be enjoying hot pot multiple times in the coming weeks. And should my family decide to all get together on some random, non-holiday month, hot pot will probably still feature as a family meal.

Family hot pot setup: humble, simple, nutritious, and delicious.