In China, hot pot is king.
The premise is simple: a group of people gather around a simmering broth and dip raw slices of meat, vegetables, and other ingredients until they’re fully cooked.
But China is a big country, and just as there are different languages spoken, there are also numerous varieties of hot pot.
The ingredients vary by region, and the soup flavors can range from flowery fragrant to numbingly spicy. In Jiangsu province, for example, the broth often includes chrysanthemums.
The origins of hot pot are disputed, but some archaeological evidence suggests hot pot in China might date back nearly 2,000 years.
“At first, it was popular in China’s cold north,” says Richard Zhang, director of the Sichuan Cuisine Museum in Chengdu. “People used it to cook all kinds of meat. Further developments in cooking technology led to the development of more variations of hot pot.”
The concept really took off in the early 19th century, when Sichuan hot pot as we know it today began to emerge.
Boatmen in the province would boil their meats in a communal spicy broth to keep warm and stretch their limited budgets as far as possible.
Some enterprising locals spotted an opportunity and began using giant communal pots to prepare the broth.
They also introduced the dividers that many people use today to keep their ingredients separate from other diners’ meals.
Regardless of where hot pot originally came from, no one region can claim a monopoly on gathering around a table and cooking together. Here are some of the different styles of hot pot you might encounter across China.
Beijing hot pot: Lamb is king
Beijing hot pot inherits its central ingredient—mutton—from the surrounding region’s nomadic tradition.
Thinly sliced meat is cooked in a volcano-shaped copper pot prevalent in Mongolia.
The broth is seasoned with mushrooms, ginger, and scallions.
(Read more: Roast lamb leg is the ultimate Beijing comfort food)
Other ingredients to be cooked in the pot include stomach meat, sliced lamb, tofu, green vegetables, and thin rice noodles.
Purists will insist that the ingredients must be added in that precise order.
Sichuan hot pot: Numbs the senses
Sichuan province in China’s southwest is home to a spicy variety of hot pot that has become internationally renowned, due in part to international chains like Haidilao and Xiaolongkan.
There are actually two main varieties of Sichuan hot pot—one originating from the capital of Chengdu and the other from the neighboring municipality of Chongqing—but both rely on chili and peppercorns that give off a mouth-numbingly spicy flavor known as mala 麻辣.
Local wisdom says that the heat of mala helps people deal with the region’s hot summers and cold winters.
Unlike in Beijing, there’s a much wider choice of ingredients for people to choose from. Anything goes from congealed blood to cheese balls and live shrimp.
Hot pot culture is strong in this part of China. Chongqing residents often claim that one in five restaurants in the city is a hot pot place. (Check out our video above about Chongqing hot pot culture!)
Yunnan hot pot: Mushrooms take center stage
The mountains of Yunnan province in China’s southwest are home to 90% of all mushroom species in China. As a result, mushrooms are a popular ingredient in hot pot broth.
Hot pot restaurants can be generous in their offerings. The province is blessed with a diverse variety of mushrooms, some rare and expensive, making hot pot restaurants here a prime spot for fungus aficionados.
Like in neighboring Sichuan province, chili peppers are often thrown into the broth for an extra kick.
Guangdong hot pot: Light and fresh
The southern province of Guangdong, home to Cantonese cuisine, is known for its fragrant soup base and emphasis on seafood.
Because the climate is hot and humid year-round, spicy is not the preferred flavor profile.
Instead, Guangdong hot pot deploys light seasonings like spring onions, ginger, peanut oil, and soy sauce.
Fresh seafood is a must. Common ingredients include fish fillet, fish balls, and shrimp.
Hainan hot pot: Coconut milk and chicken
An increasingly popular variation of hot pot is coconut chicken from Hainan, an island province just south of Guangdong.
In recent years, restaurant chains have popped up across China serving this style of hot pot that uses chicken and coconut milk as the main broth ingredients.
(Read more: Hainan chicken rice isn’t from Hainan)
Hainan has a largely tropical climate. Coconut trees grow on plantations across the island, and poultry is raised on many farms, giving birth to this unique style of hot pot.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.