Sunday, November 27, 2011

麻辣火锅 Sichuan Hot Pot

Oh, Sichuan hot pot. One of my favorite foods. Anthony Bourdain tried it in Chengdu (the home of Sichuan Hot Pot) and agreed that it's a painful, but beautiful experience, in fact, perhaps you should hear it in his own words. But here's the thing, going out for hot pot is expensive. However, it is not all that expensive or difficult to make at home as long as you enjoy having lots of leftover fresh ingredients in the house. I just made a huge hotpot today, which makes the above picture look like we were starving, so I figured I'd post my how to.

So, what is Sichuan Hot Pot? It's actually called 麻辣火锅, Mala Huoguo. This literally translates to Numbing Spicy Hot Pot. Mala is a common flavor in sichuanese food and it's very unique. It is a bit of an acquired taste, but it's very addictive. The hot is simple enough, Sichuan likes chilis. The numbing is the weird bit. This comes from a spice called "huajiao" 花椒, sometimes called flower pepper, sichuan peppercorn or Chinese prickly ash.
花椒, Sichuan Peppercorn

It's got a spice smell and an odd numbing effect. When eating, you don't want to crunch down on one of these babies, lest the side of your mouth go numb. However, I do recommend trying it once for giggles! Anyway, the final effect of the mala sensation is food that is truly spicy, yet oddly numbing at the same time. People generally don't like it the first time, and then 2 days later at 3 AM have pregnant-woman-style unbearable cravings for it. I'm a fan.

Anyway, no one makes Sichuan Hot Pot entirely from scratch, so I'm just going to tell you how I make it. A friend of mine, an exchange teacher from China, came over and ate it today and she was shocked at how authentic it was, So, although I make no claims as to my technique being authentic, my flavors are.

What you need:

Since this is like a fondue, you need a hotpot bowl, like in the picture above. You can get these inexpensively at most Chinese grocery stores and expensively at most Japanese grocery stores. If you ask for a huoguo pot, they will know what you want. These generally plug into an outlet and have a heating base. You can get them split and this is very handy so you can make two kinds of broth at once.

You can also use a pot on top of a camping stove, just be careful that it doesn't tip over.

A wide based pot on top of a hotplate works as well.

In a pinch, use a crockpot, but since it doesn't get to a very high temperature, you might need to pre-cook any thicker meats.

If you do not have any of these, just make it on the stove and you won't be elegant.

Vegetable broth or stock (chicken broth will also work)
1 packet of Sichuan Mala hotpot seasoning (it may be called Chongqing hotpot seasoning. Make sure to ask if it's "mala").
Dried red chilis
Huajiao/ Sichuan peppercorns
Dried dates (available in the bag at chinese grocery stores. These are truly dried, not like the snackable dried dates we get in western groceries)
Dried goji berries
Ginger root

Mix one part water to one part vegetable broth. Add hot pot seasoning to taste (start with less, you can always add more and it's VERY potent). Add dried red chilis to taste (same rule! Realize the chilis will get stronger as they boil.) Add around a table spoon of huajiao (more if you really like it) 4-5 dried dates, a small palmful of dried goji berries, a few slices of ginger root, 2 cloves of garlic (whole) and 2 scallions cut into large (1 inch long) peices. When this comes to a boil, it will be your fondue broth. In sichuan, it should have a sheen of blood-red chili oil floating on top. That can be painful for lots of westerners. Use caution.


Hot pot is HOT. You should probably dip anything you pull out in something both for flavor and to prevent mouth scalding. So here are the ingredients for the most traditional sichuanese dipping sauce:

Finely chopped garlic
Finely chopped cilantro
Finely chopped scallions
Sesame Oil

(Optional Ingredients)
Chinese Black Vinegar
Soy Sauce

Mix ingredients in a proportion that you like in a small bowl.

Great Things to Put in Hot Pot
(Just a list of my favorites)

Sliced Beef/Lamb (you can get this from chinese grocery stores, frozen and shaved paper thin, so it cooks up very fast)
Fried Beancurd Puffs
Rice Cakes
Udon Noodles
Fish Balls
Meat Balls
Bok Choy
Chinese Brocolli
Enoki Mushrooms
Shiitake Mushrooms
Lotus Root
Sliced Yam
Sliced Taro Root
Napa Cabbage

But you can basically add whatever you can think of.

The way it all works together:

Get the broth up to a low boil in your pot. Add a bit of everything! People can add what they like. Everyone has their bowl of sauce, probably a bowl of rice and maybe just another general bowl and a pair of chopsticks. The food cooks quite quickly, with the meatballs taking longest because they are often served frozen. The meat will take less than a minute to cook through, but it's best to leave it in for at least a minute. Pull out what you like, dip it in the sauce (I usually let it sit for a few seconds to cool) then yank it out and eat! Enjoy!

Goes Best With:

Beer or soda, especially pepsi and fresh fruit for dessert.


Tums before the meal. Seriously.


  1. You mentioned above "Everyone has their bowl of sauce". What is the dipping sauce that you would recommend after pulling the food out of the boiling hot sauce? Thank you

    1. My personal favorite, and one of the most traditional in Sichuan, chopped garlic, cilantro, a pinch of salt, a pinch of MSG (optional, of course) and this is drowned in sesame oil, so it's basically just a flavored sesame il.