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Spicy Hot Pot at Little Sheep Hot Pot (Image: Naomi Tomky)

How do you hot pot? (But seriously, here's how)

Chinese-style hot pot brings together everything you need for a cozy winter meal: a wonderful way to gather a group, a steaming pot of broth, and a hearty meal customized for each diner. The set-up: a giant bowl of broth (possibly split down the middle), a series of plates full of raw ingredients, and optional sauces — makes it look more complicated than most menus. But the meal offers tons of choice and an easy way to make group ordering stress-free. Diners drop in raw ingredients and let them cook — some for seconds, others for longer — and then fish them out, now imbued with the heady flavors of the sauce, and eat them. Sound delicious? Here’s what you need to know to order, and where to go to find Seattle’s best hot pot.

The first decision in ordering hot pot is what type of soup you want. At most places, the options are limited to spicy or mild, but a few local spots — Gourmet Noodle Bowl and Hong Kong Bistro in the International District - offer additional options such as chicken, barbecue, and curry broths. If more than one option appeals (or different people in a group like different soups, you can order a split bowl, with two halves, each with a different broth).

Next, you get to pick what you will dip into that broth. At some restaurants, you have the option to choose between all-you-can-eat and a pay-per-plate style of ordering. For AYCE, at some places (Gourmet Noodle Bowl, Sichuanese Cuisine), you’ll then get a parade of dishes. At others, like Hong Kong Bistro and Style Hot Pot, you can check off what you want from an endless list including both the everyday (cabbage, beef slices, noodles) and the type of thing that doesn’t show up on as many menus around town (fish balls stuffed with roe, chrysanthemum greens, tripe).

So, what should you order? While the foods you normally like should guide your choices, there are a few foods that work particularly well that might not jump out at you. Frozen tofu sounds like something a desperate vegetarian might have for dinner, but the freeze-thaw process gives the protein a unique texture which absorbs the broth flavor particularly well. Mushrooms, especially enoki, do double duty, adding flavor to the broth while transforming into tiny, noodle-esque treasures - worth ordering even if you’re anti-fungal normally.

The finishing touch to your hot pot set-up is sauce. At some restaurants, such as Sichuanese Cuisine, a bowl of sesame-paste style sauce will come automatically, at others, like Little Sheep, you’ll order it from the same checklist as the ingredients. At North Seattle’s Style Hot Pot, you’ll want to go to the sauce bar, where you can mix up your own custom dipping sauce (and pick up a few of the free appetizers on the same counter).

Once the soup and ingredients arrive, the first thing you want to do is wait until the soup is hot enough to cook—you should be able to see it boil—then you can start dropping in ingredients. Start with the items that take the longest and add flavor: any offal meat, mushroom, and root vegetables. As those cook, toss in quicker cooking vegetables and meats—it’s time to start eating.

Most foods offer easy visual cues as to how long it needs in the boiling broth: just a few seconds for meat, a minute or so for squid. Most of the meat and fish balls float when they finish cooking. As each food finishes up, diners can fish it out using the strainer spoon. Dip each food in the sauce on the way to your mouth to both cools the food and adds extra flavor.

Save heavier foods—dumplings and noodles—until toward the end so you don’t fill up too fast. When you’re almost full, stop fishing out the ingredients and use the ladle to make a small bowl of broth to drink: a comforting, tasty way to end the meal.

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