Chinese recipe: Lao (Hot Pot)

Have you ever had Chinese Hot Pot? It’s a great dish. Very popular amongst Chinese. We Vietnamese also make it, but not as often. In Chicago, perhaps the most well-known Hot Pot place is in Chinatown, called Lao Sze Chuan. The Mecca for Hot Pot is in Beijing. I had opportunity to enjoy it firsthand.  Here’s a photo of Ryan and myself showing down in Beijing (Mo was with us too). 

What exactly is Hot Pot?  Well, as the name suggests, it all starts with a huge pot that’s heated in the middle of your dinner table.  There’s a delicious broth inside.  The rest is cook-it-yourself.  You get a bunch of veggies; seafood like shrimp, squid, and fish; and red meats like beef or lamb.  Throw it in the broth, wait a little, and voila – freshly cooked tasty delights! Here’s a closeup of our hot pot in Beijing.  This version had two soup bases to choose from – regular and spicy.  Also note that the soup bowl hole is built into the table – that’s how serious Hot Pot is in China! 🙂

Over the Christmas holidays, my family (parents and uncle/aunt/cousins) came to Chicago for a visit.  I took them to Lao Sze Chuan.  I think they enjoyed the meal.  But my parents weren’t too impressed.  They’re never very impressed with restaurants actually.  How did they beget a foodie for a son?  “We paid how much for that?” asked my dad.  “I can make that at home,” said my mom.

True to my mom’s word, when my parents came to visit today, it was time for some homemade hot pot.  They brought a whole cooler full of raw vegetables and seafood on ice in their car.  Succulent shrimp, slimy squid, fiesty fish, yum.  Today was Good Friday so my parents (who are Catholic) passed on including meat. We all partook in the preparations.

Making Hot Pot is actually very easy.  It’s all about preparing the ingredients beforehand.  Wash this, chop that, slice this, defrost the other, blah blah blah.  You can pretty much put anything in there.  When you’re done with the prep work, put everything on a plate and place it on the table.  We went with the following ingredients:

  • Lettuce
  • Chinese Spinach
  • Some Vietnamese green whose name I can’t remember
  • Potatoes
  • Shrimp
  • Catfish
  • Squid

The one thing about making homemade Hot Pot is having the goods.  You need a large pot that can be heated in front of you.  It needs to big enough to cook a lot of food.  But it shouldn’t be too tall because you’ll need to put food in it and grab food out of it all the time.  I went with my electric wok this time.  Betcha never tried to make soup in a wok before!

Making the soup is easy.  Just use a big ole can of chicken soup and pour it in.  I think we went with 2 quarts?  Set the pot to high.  Throw in some green onions.  For flavoring, you can use some of this “Memmi” noodle soup base (bottle on right side of photo).  Just squirt a bit in there.  Most of the flavoring will actually come from the seafood and meat, once you cook a bit. 

How do you cook the ingredients?  Easy – just throw it in the pot!  The entire pot is never “all ready” or “all not ready.”  It’s more like “the shrimp is ready now” or “only the veggies are ready so far.”  To this end, you’ll need to know some basics on how long stuff cooks.

  • Shellfish like mussels or squid need the most time to cook
  • Shrimp and fish only need moderate cooking, and you can tell when they’re ready because they look white
  • Hard veggies (like the base of lettuce, broccoli, or bok choy) need moderate cooking too
  • Soft leafy veggies (spinach, iceberg lettuce) cook real fast
  • Beef cooks really fast, especially if it’s really thinly sliced.  Leave lamb in a little longer.

 When food is ready, you just scoop it up, put it in your own bowl, and eat it right away.  You can use some of this Chinese Barbeque Sauce (left side of previous photo) to flavor your bowl as well.  It’s kind of a chunky pepper paste.  You can dip with other sauces too, such as garlic sauce or black bean sauce (think of sauces that you’d see at a Mongolian BBQ restaurant).  

Chinese Hot Pot is a fun, communal meal.  Everyone has a part in preparing and cooking.  Even while you’re eating, you’re constantly putting more stuff in the pot and taking stuff out.  Oh yeah, I should mention that you don’t need to put ALL the ingredients in at once.  Just put a few in at a time – enough to cook and eat – then add more later on.  The hot pot gets tastier over time, because all the juices from the ingredients will have made the stew richer and richer.  Remember to adjust the pot temperature lower when it’s boiling and higher if it has cooled down too much.  It’s a very fluid effort.  Once it’s all over, your stomach should feel stuffed, and your head may be a little sweaty from all the hot liquid.  Aaaaaaaaah! 🙂

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