Hot pot serves up warmth and flavour on cold winter nights

Hot pot isn't just soup, says food columnist Gail Johnson. Here's a look at the increasingly popular dish ahead of the Lunar New Year.

The ancient meal is hitting a boiling point in Vancouver's food scene: here's how to take part

According to legend, hot pot was invented about 800 years ago during a military campaign led by Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan. Today, it's gone mainstream, with hot pot restaurants popping up all over B.C. (Mark Ralston/Getty Images)

Combine steaming broth, a bountiful array of meats and vegetables, and a rowdy group of diners, and you've got the basic ingredients for hot pot: a common meal across Asia, but one just starting to take hold in Canada.

"A common misconception among North Americans who have never had hot pot is that it's soup. It's not soup," said CBC food columnist Gail Johnson.

For hot pot rookies, here's how to dunk, stew and dip like a pro ahead of the Lunar New Year.

Pick your broth

Hot pot is typically served from a communal pot, set in the middle of the table on a burner, so it simmers throughout the meal. 

Vegetarians might go for a mushroom broth, Johnson tells On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko. Often, though, broth is simply labelled "spicy" and "non-spicy," and might have a pork or beef base.

"If you do order a spicy broth, be sure that you can truly tolerate heat," Johnson advised.

"The Chongqing-style hot pot is always made with red chili peppers and other hot spices. It's known as 'mala,' which translates roughly as 'numb and spicy.' It's red in colour, which symbolizes good fortune and happiness," she explained.

"When you order this style, there are dozens of those chili peppers floating in it. This is the kind of stuff that clears the sinuses."

Add your ingredients

After a waiter serves your broth, it's time to choose what to cook.

Plates of raw vegetables, like corn or bok choy, might pair well with enoki mushrooms, pork belly or fish balls.

At some eateries, you can try cooking octopus or shrimp paste, Johnson says, which is "basically just ground-up prawns, so you scoop it out with a spoon and you end up with little shrimp dumplings."

Thinly-sliced marinated beef, Chinese yam, radish cakes, tofu balls, daikon and even potato can all end up simmering together. Some ingredients, like napa cabbage or tender meats, only get a quick dunk with chopsticks.

"Because the meat is so thin, it cooks quickly, within about 30 seconds," said Johnson. "Then you fish it out with a spoon or a mesh basket."

For more adventurous eaters, she adds, there's tripe, intestine, and pork blood.

"That's the beauty of hot pot," she said. "It can accommodate lots of different tastes."

But, Johnson cautions, you don't eat straight away. "There's another little step in here that you do before you start cooking."

Don't dig in yet

You've got your broth, proteins and produce. But before you start eating, it's time to choose toppings and sauces.

"Before the food comes, you head over to a condiments table, which is like a mini buffet in itself," Johnson said.

"It has dozens of ingredients that you use to make your own dipping sauce. So we're talking things like chili oil, sesame oil, tahini, hoisin sauce, XO sauce, freshly chopped garlic, and ginger."

There's cilantro, scallions, peanuts, spices and other herbs, she says.

"You can even do just a mix of dried spices to dip certain foods in. So between that and the foods you cook in the broth, the range of ingredients is tremendous."

Know your hot pot history 

As one of many traditional New Year's dishes, Johnson refers to hot pot as the perfect reprieve from the winter cold. In Beijing, she says, celebrants like to use lamb, an ingredient said to "drive away the chills and improve circulation."

The dish has been around since its incarnation more than 800 years ago, when, legend has it, Mongolian warriors under Kublai Khan invented the communal meal during a military campaign. 

Later, in the 17th century, "it's said that Emperor Kangxi invited more than 1,000 elders to have a lamb hot pot feast during Chinese New Year at the Forbidden Palace," said Johnson. "From there, the dish spread to commoners."

And now, she points out, hot pot is flourishing across Vancouver.

But she has one final tip for any newbie.

"One thing to remember about hot pot is this: Go on an empty stomach. It's a lot of food."

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast.