The Hot Pot Conundrum Explained

Hot pot (火鍋) has to be the single most popular dish in Taiwan. It is served on virtually all occasions, and is the most common choice for dining out among a group of Taiwanese friends.

Hot pot is served by placing a bowl of hot soup stock at the table. Normally the stock is kept hot with some type of burner, built into the table at a restaurant, or a portable burner when done at home. The diners then choose from a variety of Asian foodstuffs placing their choice in the soup. Normal hot pot dishes include seafood, thinly sliced meat, leafy vegetables, various dumplings, wontons, mushrooms, blood cake, and different varieties of tofu. The diners place just a few items in the stock at a time, eat them, and then repeat. Eating hot pot can go on for hours as each person repeatedly cooks and then eats their food.

In Taiwanese restaurants the most common way to serve hot pot is in a chafing dish that has been divided in half, one side containing ma la (麻辣) soup base, which is hot and spicy, while the other side of the chafing dish is a non-spicy soup base. After cooking their food, diners have a number of sauces that they can dip the food in before consuming it.

Hot pot is okay. I don’t hate it. There’s nothing nauseating about it. In my humble opinion, there’s not much to love about it either. Once or twice a year, on a cold winter’s eve, it can be perfectly charming. Where I find it frustrating is that when going out with Taiwanese friends it seems all they ever want to do is have hot pot. It’s not that great. Think about it. What is the worst possible way to prepare food? Answer: Boiling. It leeches all the flavor, color and texture out of the food. That’s not opinion. It’s chemistry. At the end you’re left with a relatively tasteless blob. That’s why a coterie of dipping sauces are needed. Ultimately all you’re tasting is the sauce.

The Taiwanese can really wax poetic about the fine differences in taste between the hot pot at this restaurant versus that restaurant. Don’t believe them. Boiled water tastes the same no matter where it was boiled. Years ago I was going out for dinner with my then girlfriend. We went to a place that had three hot pot restaurants beside each other. One was empty, one was about half full, and the other had customers on every seat, and standing around trying to get seated. I wanted to go to the empty one—that would have been the most comfortable. She wanted to go to the ridiculously full one, because she felt it must be the most delicious. I pointed out to her that they would all be the same. It’s boiled water and the empty restaurant couldn’t screw it up even if they tried. We ended up going to the moderately full restaurant, and when we emerged at the end of the night all three restaurants were equally full, because of course boiled water is boiled water. I recently took a trip to Japan with my wife. While there she wanted to go out for shabu shabu シャブシャブ (Japanese style hot pot), presumably because she thought the boiled water in Japan would taste better than the boiled water in Taiwan. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.

If you eat hot pot in a restaurant, the restaurant does virtually nothing in terms of preparation and presentation. They put a pot of hot soup on your table and turn up the burner. The customers themselves prepare the food. Yet, the price of dining in a hot pot restaurant is comparable to what you might expect to pay at a Chinese restaurant where the food is prepared, nicely presented, and served to you. My personal issue with hot pot restaurants is the food is boiled, thus inherently not particularly delicious. I have to cook it myself, while paying the restaurant a healthy fee to do what? Boil water? There are so many other, better, options for dining out in Taiwan.

When I point out these obvious facts to Taiwanese friends they’re stunned. They’ve eaten hot pot their whole lives and never noticed that the food is poorly prepared, and that—in a restaurant—they’re paying for nonexistent service. After the shock subsides, and they consider it a bit, they usually come back with—it is all about the soup. “Ahhh, we Taiwanese are a soupy people.” And it is true, if you spend several hours boiling various foods in a broth, at the end of the night you are left with an extremely rich and hearty soup. But, here’s how I know they’re lying, either to me, or to themselves. At the end of the evening they don’t spend a lot of time savoring the soup. Generally it just gets a few sips on the way out the door. Having spent hours eating subpar food they spend only a minute or two on the soup, the supposed pièce de résistance. I don’t think so.

I believe the Taiwanese have been eating hot pot their whole lives for its social benefits. Hot pot takes a long time to eat, and I think this is ultimately why hot pot is so popular. The Taiwanese are social eaters and hot pot allows them to eat and socialize for hours on end. There are all kinds of warm emotions associated with the dish, moments of camaraderie with family and friends. They are eating their emotions. The happy memories blind them to the dish’s flaws. Hot pot is the unofficial Taiwanese national dish not because it represents excellent cooking, but because it represents good times with good friends. For this reason I also enjoy hot pot when surrounded by wonderful people.