In Chinese culture (and most cultures)…it’s all about the food. Everything is celebrated with a meal, meal time is family time, there are special foods created for specific festivals, other foods are eaten for longevity – essentially, Chinese people will find every excuse to enjoy delicious food.
The best memories I have with my friends were shared over meals. Nothing is better than sharing good conversation over good comfort food; the ultimate comfort food being Hot Pot.
Most Asian countries have some form of hot pot. It’s quite difficult to explain and give people who don’t know what it is a good idea…but simply, there is a hot pot on the table filled with hot broth that you use to cook raw food. There is a multitude of broths to choose from, and the variety of food to cook is endless. What it boils down to is a lot of deliciousness cooked in a flavourful broth.
My usual go to hot pot place in Edmonton is Urban Shabu (9700 105 Avenue Nw #168), located at the edge of Chinatown. Owned by the same people as Urban China, this hot pot location has a wonderful atmosphere. It is cozy, super clean, but not overly crowded. Other hot pot places, I find, do not have quite as welcoming of an atmosphere, making it really hard to enjoy friends’ company. What I also love about Urban Shabu is that they don’t rush customers after their two hour time limit. As long as there is no long line-up at the door, my friends and I ALWAYS sit through to dessert.
Urban Shabu boasts a three page menu of raw foods (all you can eat!) to choose from as well as 17 different broths (you can also choose a hot pot with two different kinds of broth!) It is great for large groups because of the variety. First choose a soup base. The broth is the base for the entire meal and it is important to choose the right one. Generally, I find this the most difficult part of the evening, there are just too many good broths! Keep in mind that as the food cooks and boils in the broth, the taste of the soup will evolve throughout the meal. There, are a variety of mild basic flavours, like Chicken, Cilantro and Preserved Eggs, Satay, to more flavourful and spicy broths like Tom Yum, Szechuan Spicy, Spicy Lamb and a variety of others. Do be careful of the spicy at Urban Shabu. When they say spicy, they mean hot, chili, spicy. My go to broth is the Cilantro Preserved Egg – it is a really basic, clean broth which is great for building flavour. For nights where I want a little something more, I go with Tom Yum, it adds the right bit of tangy flavour to my meal. After deciding on the broth, it is time to choose the food. Try everything on the menu if possible. They come in small portions so food is never wasted, but do make sure there are plenty of friends to share and distribute the food around.
As a veteran diner at Urban Shabu, I have many “must eats” and many “must try’s” for friends new to hot pot.
- One of my absolute favourites is the deep-fried bean curd. It’s not the most filling thing, but the light airy texture makes it great for holding the flavour of the broth. Something I recommend eating towards the middle of the meal after a lot of meat has been cooked.
- Pork belly is an absolute must! The fattiness of the meat adds flavour to the broth, and who doesn’t like bacon?!
- Handmade Paste is a must have and is super fun. It is fresh ground meat and you make your own little meatballs. The paste can make about 3 to 4 meatballs and should be divided as such (or else it will take forever to cook!) It comes in lamb, beef, cuttlefish, shrimp and fish. I highly recommend the beef and cuttlefish.
- For a little bit of carb for dinner, try the Long Donut. This doughy goodness pairs well when dipped in the broth.
- And to round off dessert, I always go with the Mango Creme Soup. It is a cool light dessert. Mango with coconut milk at some tapioca, it is the great refreshing way to end off the evening.
Of course there are many staple foods for hot pot. Always order plenty of meats like beef and lamb slices and keep the rounds going to build flavour in the broth. Never forget to order veggies, lots of leafy greens (my favourite is watercress!) and some squash and zucchini are great. It keeps the tummy from being overly bloated throughout the night. Dumplings are also fun things to have at hot pot. They do take a bit more time to cook, but are so worth it! For those who don’t enjoy seafood or shrimp, only order the Pork and Veggie dumplings. Always order your starch at the very end. The noodles are filled with starch and the soup becomes too starchy if you cook noodles too early on. My recommendation, sweet potato noodle, instant noodle and the louver knots (bean curd sheets tied in knots.)
There are many ways to tackle hot pot and a variety of things to prepare for. Here are my rules for an enjoyable hot pot time with friends.
- Wear clothes you won’t miss. Because of all the flavours coming out of hot pot, don’t wear clothes that are difficult to clean. On the same note, avoid white shirts! There may be some splashes. Always ask for a cover for jackets, you will appreciate it.
- Drink cool drinks! Hot pot, as you can imagine, can get quite hot.
- Try everything. You never know what you might love!
- Up your sauce game! There is a variety of sauces to choose from to enhance the food experience. Sauces can be added directly to the soup or set on the side for dipping. Everyone has their own special concoction, play around to find out what works. My personal favourite is the peanut sauce and XO sauce.
- Go with an open stomach and heart for conversation. Hot pot is a very social activity and being anti-social is an outright no-no.
All in all, hot pot is a meal that can be enjoyed at home or out at restaurants. The whole point of hot pot is to keep warm AND enjoy warm conversations with friends. There can’t be one without the other!
Here is a video tutorial by the Fung Bros on Hot Pot 101 for noobs.