While many people around the world have eaten at Chinese restaurants, few people have had one of the most popular Chinese meals: hot pot (火锅 huǒguō). It's not a dish that you can order in any restaurant but rather a restaurant that specializes in serving hot pot. In recent years, more and more hot pot restaurants have opened around the world so it's easier to find outside of China now. Although it's a meal that involves special equipment and an array of ingredients to serve, eating hot pot isn't just about the food. This focus of this slow communal method of eating is actually socializing with friends and family.
Different areas of China have different variations on hot pot but the most famous are Sichuan and Beijing. Other countries also have their own versions of hot pot but the basic concept is the same. A large pot of boiling broth is placed in the middle of the table and raw ingredients are served on plates. Each person has their own empty small bowl and optionally a dipping sauce. You cook the food at the table by dipping or placing it in the broth then fishing it out with chopsticks or a strainer or spoon when it's done cooking. You can also either get a side of rice or noodles to cook in the hot pot.
Sichuan hot pot is the most famous style, recognizable by the layer of floating red chili peppers on top. It also has its namesake Sichuan peppers which provide a numbing spice (麻辣 málà) in the broth. Originally, this flavorful spicy broth was used to mask the taste of cheap cuts of meat. Now, it's the most popular style of hot pot restaurants. Modern hot pot restaurants often serve the broth in a pot with a divider so you can choose two broths and have one spicy and one non-spicy broth.
The other popular style of hot pot is from Beijing. It often has a clear broth flavored by meat, specifically lamb (涮羊肉 shuàn yángròu). It became popular in the North as a winter dish. The boiling broth warms your insides and the hearty meat fills your stomach. Now, hot pot and lamb are eaten all year around, although lamb is still not as popular in Southern China.
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