If an East Asian were to ask a Brit what ‘hot pot’ meant to them or vice versa, the resultant conversation would end up leaving both parties somewhat befuddled. In the land of rain, crumpets and the Royal Family, hot pot refers to a Lancastrian stew of lamb or mutton topped with sliced potatoes and then baked in an oven. While no doubt tasty in its own right, it’s a far cry from the one dish that seems to traverse every border across all of East Asia and occupies a special place in the hearts of each of the region’s inhabitants.
Even though the name may change depending on the country you are in at the time, the basic formula remains the same. A central vessel is filled with simmering broth and then placed on top of a portable cooker in the middle of the table. Skirting this bubbling centrepiece are plates upon plates of thinly-sliced meats, a medley of quick cooking vegetables, seafood and tofu. These are placed into the cooking liquid and removed when done and placed either onto a separate, clean plate or directly into the bowls of the eagerly awaiting diners.
It would be remiss to say that the only thing that changes from place to place is the name of the meal, as each country, and sometimes even each province, adds its own unique twist to the much-loved dish. In China, where hot pot originated, there is a distinct contrast between the milder broths of the north and the fiery, red lava that characterises Sichuan hot pot. The latter has become popular all over Asia and even made it to the Chinatowns of Western countries, where it is a godsend for spiceheads looking for their fix. The Japanese boast a wide pantheon of hot pots but the two most famous variants are undoubtedly ‘sukiyaki’, which is a beef hot pot cooked in a soy and sugar-based broth, served with a beaten raw egg to dip the meat before eating, and ‘shabu shabu’, which has a more savoury broth and comes with a wider array of dipping condiments. In addition, Taiwan, Cambodia and Thailand, among others, all have their own takes on this dish but you would be hard pressed to find a country that embraces it quite as much as Vietnam does.
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that, especially in the winter months, lẩu broth runs through the veins of the Vietnamese. Every neighbourhood has at least one hot pot joint and the Old Quarter is peppered with them. In fact, large swathes of Phung Hung Street are devoted entirely to nothing but hot pot eateries, mostly street-side affairs, but several of these establishments have plenty of indoor seating as well, something which comes in handy when the weather turns chilly and a beer jacket is no longer enough to ward off the elements.
One of my first and most memorable experiences in Hanoi took place at one of these very restaurants. It was a slow night at my favourite drinking hole and I was the only customer come midnight. At this point, the owner decided it wasn’t worth staying open past curfew and rounded up the staff and the sole remaining patron of the bar and took us all to get late night hot pot. Back then, the police were really cracking down on businesses that stayed open late and my heart sunk when we pulled up to the place and I saw the shutters were down. However, my friend was still sporting a wry smile and after a quick rap on the shutters, they magically rose up and our party was swiftly ushered in. It was all very clandestine and hush-hush and almost like entering some kind of secret society. We went upstairs and before I knew it there was a bottle of vodka and a pot of fragrant liquid in front of us. The subsequent meal involved a lot of drinking, a lot of good food and heaps of great company. I don’t recall a point when every single person around the table wasn’t smiling; that might be the cheap liquor affecting my memory but I do remember thinking that dining experiences like this are exactly what a lot of so-called developed countries are severely lacking.
At its heart, eating hot pot reflects what is best about East Asian food culture. While most Vietnamese meals are served family style, with each person taking from plates of communal food, hot pot takes this to another level entirely. Not only is the serving of food carried out communally but the cooking also takes place in one big shared pot. It is one of the most social ways that a group of people can eat together. Instead of the individual starters, mains and desserts that constitute a typical Western three-course meal, hot pot brings people together around a singular focal point and lets them share round after round of different flavours and textures as the cooked food is removed and the next ingredient gets placed into the patient broth.
As delicious as hot pot is, it’s about more than just the food. The company is just as, if not more, important than the actual meal. The closeness that comes with eating in this way often induces great conversation and the warmth comes from more than just the portable cooker set on the table. Sure, it can be a reason for Vietnamese businessmen and youths alike to get drunk in the middle of the afternoon, but for most people it’s an opportunity to share - and I mean that in every sense of the word - a meal with their nearest and dearest. There’s a reason why hot pot is ever present at almost every family occasion; there’s no meal that creates the feeling of proximity, both physical and emotional, quite like it. If you really want to bring your friends closer together, invite them out for hot pot; it’s a sure-fire shortcut to a better understanding of each other, although a little additional lubrication by way of beer and rice wine never hurts.