A pretty common question I get whenever I have a mildly in-depth conversation with Taiwanese acquaintances is, “so, what’s your favorite food here?”
Well, let me tell you, it’s hot pot.
Hot pot, legend has it, was invented by the Mongol hordes over or around 1,000 years ago. The story goes that, vegetables and whatever food was available was cooked in boiling water or broth, using a helmet as the “pot.”
Hot pot today is a little different. In its most basic form, it is a boiling pot of broth that food is cooked in on the table. The broth can vary widely depending on the region you are eating hot pot in. In the South it can range from the terribly spicy ma-la pot, to a more mild spiciness in parts of Guangdong and Sichuan. Traditional northern broths are typically more mild vegetable or meat based. In additional to the broad spicy, non spicy categories, broths can range from Chinese medicinal soups, to pumpkin or even milk based broths.
Aside from the ingredients, the vessel containing the broth is the next most important component of hot pot. When I was in Beijing, I was often taken to a “Mongolian” hot pot restaurant by Patrick Tam, a good family friend. At this particular place, the pot was a vessel that surrounded a circular chimney, underneath the chimney was a coal fire that kept the pot heated. I like the traditional coal fired pot quite a bit. Other hot pots can range from individual gas burners, for a “small hot pot” or giant tripods modeled after ancient chinese soup pots.
What I love about hot pot is the communal eating aspect. Everyone sits around the hot pot and sweats equally according to the fire. The broths can be the perfect accent to go with hearty vegetables, hospital recovery or a (rare) cooler day here in Kaohsiung. There’s also a terrific exploration dimension to the meal where, searching through the pot, you could find a delicious gem! Being able to see exactly the raw ingredients you’re getting before you cook them is also a pretty great. It’s also a really easy way to eat clean vegetables without a lot of oils or other unknowns.
So, good luck finding a restaurant where you can get hot pot, but if you do run into one, I highly recommend it!