Though the invention of hot pot can’t be substantiated, it’s easy to imagine its earliest form existing around a prehistoric bonfire. The story goes that the earliest hot pot was enjoyed by Mongol horsemen boiling meats and vegetables in their overturned metal helmets over an open fire. After thousands of years bubbling away at tables around China, hot pot—as much a social activity as a meal—has taken off aggressively in the United States, bringing with it innovations in both flavor and flair. And it’s about damn time.
The term “hot pot” plainly describes the technique of cooking raw meats and other food items in flavorful broths, but its meaning belies the limitless range of experiences that we now associate with the term. At home, hot pot is still a relatively simple affair; at restaurants, both in the United States and Asia, it has taken on a whole new dimension, with luxury ingredients and high-tech spaces.
The term “hot pot” plainly describes the technique of cooking raw meats and other food items in flavorful broths, but its meaning belies the limitless range of experiences that we now associate with the term.
Manya Koetse, a China-based social trend watcher and editor of the popular website “What’s on Weibo,” so enjoyed hot pot that she started a blog Hot Pot Ambassador to document the trend and growth of the industry.
“In various ways, hot pot is more than just a dish—it is an experience,” writes Koetse on her blog. “For those unfamiliar with Chinese culture, joining Chinese friends or colleagues for a hot pot dinner can give valuable insights into Chinese culture and the importance of food: the (regional) preferences for certain foods, ingredients, and combinations, and also the conversations and bonding over dinner.”
At-home, alone, and in restaurants
Come winter, families dust off the butane burners and pots for their seasonal tenure on dinner tables for simple one-pot dinners or a large holiday spread, but thanks to small portable electric pots suitable for dorm rooms and kitchenettes, hot pot can also be a nourishing meal for singles, too. Though ingredients are readily available in Asian markets around the country, there’s much appeal in a restaurant-quality hot pot, which offers more variety. While you’re still “cooking” your own food, you don’t have to do any of the dishes, and thanks to continued innovations in the industry, the benefits don’t stop there.
The first Little Sheep Hot Pot restaurant opened in 1999 in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, not far from the Mongolian steppes where hot pot was rumored to begin. Unlike the revered, chili-laden Chongqing-style hot pot enjoyed in Sichuan province, Little Sheep’s hot pot boasts a creamy broth peppered with medicinal herbs and spices to best pair with lamb. When it opened its first U.S. location in Los Angeles in 2003, Little Sheep would be, for many, the first introduction to a hot pot restaurant experience. It paved the way, with the growing popularity of numbing, chili-laden Sichuanese cuisine in major U.S. cities, for Chongqing-style hot pot brand Liuyishou and Chengdu-based Da Long Yi to expand outside of China.
With different hot pot chains taking root in the United States came differing flavors and cultures of origin.
With different hot pot chains taking root in the United States came differing flavors and cultures of origin: the herbaceous Mongolian-inspired broth and lamb at Happy Sheep (a rebranded concept by the founder of Little Sheep); fiery Chengdu-style three-flavor pot with pork innards at Da Long Yi; individually sized broths with Taiwanese stinky tofu at Boiling Point; clean and delicate seafood-friendly flavors of Japanese shabu shabu; and more.
By 2015, when young entrepreneurs David Zhao and his partner Haibin Yang embarked on building a new hot pot concept in the states, they would be up against an already burgeoning hot pot industry in the country, with high-end Chinese brands like Haidilao and Liuyishou already breaking into the North American market with locations in Los Angeles and Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. Even so, Zhao sought to do so differently. For one, they wanted their hot pot to focus on the beef, American Wagyu specifically, whereas it was often more traditional with Chinese hot pot to focus solely on broth. They wanted every aspect of the experience to be interactive and approachable to first-timers and hot pot aficionados alike.
“We wanted to not just target the one percent of the Asian population in America, we wanted to offer our cuisine to everyone.”
With big ambitions to disrupt the burgeoning industry, the duo opened Chubby Cattle with the goal to “do something bigger,” Zhao says. “We wanted to not just target the one percent of the Asian population in America, we wanted to offer our cuisine to everyone.”
With locations now in Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and Denver, Chubby Cattle keeps it (somewhat) casual and vibrant, with hot pot items circulating on chilled conveyor belts and trays of shellfish cloaked in a veil of dry ice. In 2020, the Venetian in Las Vegas invited Zhao’s and Yang’s restaurant group to develop a luxury hot pot concept for the resort, which led to the opening of The X Pot Las Vegas. There, the humble hot pot takes on a whole new meaning, with prix fixe menus backed by a chef of Michelin pedigree plus thematic light shows and soundscapes in a futuristic steakhouse setting.
Adaptability has never been the issue, Zhao says, as they’re smaller and more nimble than some of the big Chinese players like Haidilao, which means they can easily play to different settings and cities. Still, their revolutionizing concept comes with its own work. “Part of the challenge is educating the customer base. That also includes Asian clientele who have had hot pot their entire lives. They come to X Pot and they’re like, ‘Whoa, this is the most expensive hot pot I’ve ever had.’ This is a new thing for people who have grown up in China and also for people in the U.S. who have never had hot pot before.”
The secret ingredient is CUTE
Despite its modest beginnings, modern-day hot pot is inextricably linked to technology. From custom-built pots and chilled conveyor belts to robot service and app-driven menus, the presence of technology often differentiates one hot pot spot from another. The root of the hot pot experience is the feeling of abundance, and that very quickly translated to service. At many of its locations in China, Haidilao offers waiting rooms with additional services like manicures and hand massages. Families are offered drinks and fruits, even a car wash or board games. At its U.S. locations, Haidilao members can accrue points for use at its restaurants or to redeem specialty collaboration merch like this year’s Miffy x Haidilao dining set, mugs, and even nail art. The franchise is most known for its noodle dancers who stretch and knead fresh noodle dough to make fresh ribbons of noodles to order.
teddy bear hotpot at Xiang Hotpot NYC 🧸♬ Cool for the Summer - Sped Up (Nightcore) - Demi Lovato & Speed Radio
The over-the-top, performative nature of these hot pot services gave way to Hot Pot Tik Tok, where every aspect from the sensual first dunk, marbled wagyu, bubbling chili-flecked broths, squirming live shrimp, dancing noodles, unconventional perks and services, plus a colorful array of toppings provide ample shock and ogle value for reels. To draw customers, restaurants race to find new and innovative ways to go viral. Here, hot pot takes a page from its Asian trendsetting counterpart—boba tea—by upping the cute: Along with your many choices of broths and toppings, you can choose a flavored teddy bear to bathe in your hot pot. The “teddy bear bath” at select hot pot restaurants are solid edible flavor or supplement packs like chili oil, collagen, and butter molded in the shape of a bear, and added to the bubbling pot to slowly infuse your broth. Just when you thought that the industry had discovered all ways to sweeten the deal, some hot pot restaurants have capitalized on the bubble tea trend to create a dessert version with a black milk tea base and sweet toppings like fresh fruit, pudding, grass jelly, and taro balls.
Some hot pot restaurants have capitalized on the bubble tea trend to create a dessert version with a black milk tea base and sweet toppings like fresh fruit, pudding, grass jelly, and taro balls.
All prominent trends have their haters and hot pot is no exception. In 2019, Hong Kong food critic Chua Lam created an online uproar when he said that he hoped that hot pot would disappear altogether, calling the cooking style one that “lacks culture.” In 2022, China’s Occupational Classification System formally recognized “hot pot chef” as a unique, formal profession. This was a very hopeful sign of progress for the Chongqing Hotpot Association, which believes the validation will lead to greater state resources for developing the industry and the craft for global expansion. It’s hard to say what variation or innovation hot pot could have next, but with hot pot having endured, persisted, and prospered despite a global pandemic, it seems that disappearing is quite the opposite of what this industry will do.
There were once some hard fast rules for eating hot pot, but with the many versions of hot pot now in existence, the rules have also changed. While some lighter broths are suitable for meats to be cooked first and vegetables last, some more creative and heartier broths now request the opposite. Some broths are made to be enriched over time by the ingredients and enjoyed as a warm soup at the end of the meal, while more concentrated broths used primarily as a cooking medium are rich in chili oil and fat, are not ideal for drinking.
Here are some dos and don'ts for hot enjoying hot pot:
Pace yourself with the condiments. A little bit of this and a little bit of that can make the perfect dipping sauce, but just because all the options are there doesn’t mean you go for all 20. Make a dipping sauce that enhances your ingredients without overwhelming its natural flavors. Make a little, and if you’re feeling experimental, you can return to the sauce bar to adjust or try new versions.
Published on March 27, 2023