After spending some time in China, you will find that the Chinese people are very prideful, and not simply prideful about their country, but about their regions as well. It seems like if you go anywhere in China, you will hear that whatever region you’re in has the best tea, best dumplings, best noodles and really anything else you can think of (best dog?!). The same goes for hot pot. So if you may think hot pot is simply a bot of boiling water to cook food in, you are wrong.
While in Shanghai, we went to a Chengdu-style (pronounced chung-doo) hot pot joint on Huaihai Road called Hot Pot King. Like most hot pot, the Chengdu sort is family-style, with a big pot in the middle of a table. But the Chengdu-style hot pot is unique in that the pot itself is divided in half. On one side goes a spicy broth, while on the other side goes a more plain broth. Although only one side is spicy in the hot sense, both have a good amount of spices and oil added for flavor. So if the spicy side gets too hot for you, you can always cool off on the other side without losing too much flavor.
Unique to Shanghai (as far as I know) is that hot pot joints like this have a huge selection of sauces to choose from. You serve yourself by grabbing a small dish and ladling out the various sauces. They vary from peanut to spicy sesame to crazier options like hot hemp oil (whatever that is). After mixing a personal concoction, you can finally start boiling some food.
There is typically an order in which foods should be tossed into the pot and most local Chinese will ensure that things are done in the right order. Even if you don’t know the exact order, you can pretty much assume that thick foods like potato and lotus root will need to be cooked first. These guys simply take longer. Vegetables and things like cilantro should also be added in the earlier stages because they also take a while and in the case of cilantro, they add flavor to the broth (whereas the vegetables simply steal flavor from the broth). The last food to go in is always meat, so you have to be a patient unvegan to truly enjoy hot pot. Meat only takes a few seconds to cook in the boiling broth and although you have to wait a while to put it in the broth, the payoff is nearly immediate.
Hot pot meat is some of the most tender meat around and is thinly sliced for easy cooking. The broth adds great flavor to the meat that would make it taste great on its own, but if you succeed in mixing a delicious sauce, the meat becomes even tastier. Lamb and beef are the most common because of the short cooking time and you can find these either frozen or refrigerated. The frozen strips are made into thin rolls for easy cooking, while the refrigerated meats are thicker strips. In trying both, I can’t really say I have a preference, because so much of the flavor comes from the broth and sauce, rather than from the meat preservation style.
For sheer variety, Chengdu hot pot is hard to beat. While most offer only one broth flavor, Chengdu gives you the option of spicy or mild. On top of that, if you’re going to get it Shanghai, you should get a nice selection of sauces to customize your meal even more. No matter your preference, Chengdu hot pot is a great way to eat some hot, boiled meat in Shanghai.