Virtual Hotpot Party at Home 宅家云火锅

Virtual hotpot party 云火锅 is an easy and festive way to gather remotely with friends and family
Virtual hotpot party 云火锅 is an easy and festive way to gather remotely with friends and family

Tis the season… for a 火锅 (huǒ guō) hotpot party! With this year being a holiday season like no other, I can’t think of a more warming and comforting meal than hotpot. Better yet, it’s perfectly suited for a virtual, socially-distanced gathering with friends and family. During the COVID quarantine in China, virtual hotpot parties 云火锅 (yún huǒ guō, “cloud hotpot”) were all the rage.

It’s been far too long since my last post. We’ve been moving and tackling home improvement, and hotpot was the very first meal we had in our new home. And since we’ve been so busy with house projects, hotpot has been the perfect meal. It’s virtually effortless to order all the ingredients from a well-stocked Asian grocery, and all the cooking happens on the table as you go.

Read on for how I’m making our virtual holiday hotpot gatherings happen! I’ll discuss everything you need to get started and suggest a huge variety of ingredients from common to exotic to make your hotpot party special.

Getting Started: The Steps

  1. Where to Shop
  2. Equipment
  3. Hotpot Soup Base
  4. How to Cook
  5. What to Cook
    1. Meats
    2. Seafood
    3. Vegetables & Root Vegetables
    4. Prepared Foods: Soy/Vegetarian & Meat/Seafood
  6. Dipping Sauces
  7. Wine Pairing
  8. Take the Party Online

Quick Shopping Note

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I discuss my favorite Asian grocery chains in more detail here. My personal go-to for fresh/frozen hotpot ingredients is Freshgogo (available US East Coast). Sign up via my referral link for $5 off your first order).

  1. Scroll down below the ticket “$5 代金卷” and enter your phone number in “点击输入您的手机号码”
  2. Click the red button “立即领取”
  3. This brings up a button to the home page, click “打开FreshGoGo”.
  4. From there, switch the language and Register using the same phone number. The $5 coupon should apply automatically on your first order.

To stock up on pantry ingredients like hotpot base and soy products and grocery delivery on the West Coast, I recommend Yamibuy for the widest variety and best prices. In addition, 99 Ranch Market and H-mart deliver in many areas via Instacart.

Hotpot Party Equipment: All you need to get started

To start, you just need a tabletop heat source and a pot. Every good hotpot restaurant uses induction for its safety and ease of control, so this is a perfect opportunity to pull out the induction cooktop I recommend in my post on Secrets of Stir Fry

For the pot, wide and shallow is best. The way to go is an inexpensive stainless steel divided hotpot, known as 鸳鸯锅 (yuān yāng guō) “mandarin duck pot”. The poetic name is because in Chinese culture mandarin ducks represent the harmonious union of two different but complementary halves.

In addition, each hotpot party attendee will need a small sauce bowl (rice bowl), small plate, and a pair of long chopsticks. You want ~13 inches = 33 cm; the longer length vs regular chopsticks makes it easier to safely chase ingredients around the pot.

Depending on chopstick comfort level, you might like a mini strainer ladle. If not, it helps to have a communal ladle (e.g. your wok spoon) to periodically scoop out lost ingredients. For maximum comfort, use a spoon/pot lid rest at the table.

Hotpot Soup Base 火锅底料: Spicy, Mild, or Both

We always like to have two different 火锅底料 (huǒ guō dǐ liào) hotpot broths, one spicy and one mild/savory. Feel free to get creative! For your two broths, you can make your own or buy ready-made. We usually buy the spicy broth base and make our own mild broth. Hotpot broth bases are shelf stable and widely available in Chinese grocery stores or to order online.

Since we have hotpot at least once a week in the winter, we save our hotpot base and reuse it week after week, creating 老火锅 (lǎo huǒ guō) “old hotpot”. The broth is refreshed by adding new chili oil, hot water, and seasonings as needed. As you cook ingredients during your hotpot party, they’ll infuse the broth with their own flavor as well. That’s why 老火锅 “old hotpot” is so popular… lazy and delicious is a huge win in my book!

Spicy Hotpot Base

Various prepackaged Sichuan hotpot base
An assortment of packaged hotpot bases

There are two main formats of spicy hotpot broth base: a solid block of chili-infused oil (usually flavored with beef tallow) with whole spices, or packets of powdered soup base and liquid chili oil. I prefer the former. To use them, simply cut the block into a few large slices and dissolve in water.

Here are a few of my favorite spicy hotpot broths:

Mild Hotpot Base

There are perfectly serviceable commercial clear broths, but these are super easy to make on your own.

The easiest mild hotpot broth of all time is a combination of stock / broth and miso. Combine a few teaspoons of Better than Bouillon chicken base with two teaspoons of miso paste (red or white or Korean doenjang). I always add a few slices of ginger as well as segments of scallion whites.

My favorite mild hotpot base is tomato broth. We start with stock or Better than Bouillon, then add in 5 to 8 vine tomatoes. A bay leaf adds a subtly fragrant note. The longer the tomatoes cook down, the richer the soup base’s flavor. But even 15 minutes while you prep will be yummy. We don’t mind tomato peels in the hotpot soup, but you can peel the tomatoes by scoring and blanching them whole. As with tomato soup, good canned tomatoes work well here as well!

Amp Up the Flavor

Chongqing spicy hotpot broth / homemade miso broth

In addition to the fresh ginger root and scallion whites I mentioned above, there are a lot of ways to make hotpot base your own. I like to add a couple 新疆大枣 (Xīnjiāng dà zǎo) large jujube dates to both mild and spicy broths for a subtle sweetness. After bubbling away for a few hours, they’re also a delicious savory-sweet bite.

To upgrade milky broth-based hotpot, a few slices of 人参 (rén shēn) ginseng and 枸杞 (gǒu qǐ) goji berries are a great choice. 冬菇 (dōng gū) Dried shiitake mushrooms up the umami as well.

With a two-sided pot for hotpot, the opportunities for experimentation are endless! Keep one side tame and go crazy on the other side. Some ideas for creative hotpot soup bases:

How to Cook Hotpot

Bring the pot to a rolling boil. I’d start with a 6.0 – 7.5 on the Duxtop induction, and then as everyone starts slowing down over the course of the hotpot party, turn it down to a heavy simmer (3.0 – 5.0).

Each party attendee picks their own ingredients to cook. Most items require just a few seconds to cook, so hang onto them with your long chopsticks / mini strainer or keep track of their location. Others with longer cook times are better suited to dropping a bunch and sharing. Some items will get lost the pot during the process, so periodically use the communal ladle to fish out the extras to divvy up.

There’s nothing better than gathering around a steaming, bubbling pot of broth with a bowl of sauce and a smorgasbord of old and new favorites. Take your time: cook slowly, savor every bite, and enjoy the (virtual) company.

cooking Chinese hotpot

All the Fixings: Choose your own hotpot party

This is really hotpot gets really exciting. Below I’ve rounded up a comprehensive list of hotpot ingredients with Chinese and pīnyīn and cooking times. As always, please leave a comment below if you have questions or would like help sourcing ingredients!

The beauty of hotpot parties is that each participant can really choose their own adventure. The secret to a successful and memorable hotpot party is to stock small quantities of a wide variety of ingredients across the categories below.

Pick one or several items from each category for a effortless event. I highly encourage you to explore a few ingredients out of your comfort zone each time to discover some new favorites! The list below is roughly in the order I’d start cooking, but you can and should mix and match throughout the party.

Meats: thinly sliced for quick cooking

For many, the centerpiece of hotpot are paper thin, wonderfully marbled sliced meats. They cook in just 5 to 10 seconds for a melty, tender bite. Your well-stocked local Asian grocery or delivery service will have packaged, thinly-sliced meats; look for labels with hotpot or shabu shabu.

You could also slice your own hotpot meats using an electric deli slicer (freeze the whole piece for 2 hours first until firm). Or cut by hand with a high quality knife and some patience, but I wouldn’t recommend prepping for an entire hotpot party by hand.

In terms of meat cuts for hotpot, these are the classics:

  • 羊肉片 (yáng ròu piàn) sliced leg or shoulder of lamb
  • 肥牛肉 (féi niú ròu) fatty beef, usually eye of round
  • 小牛排 (xiǎo niú pái) boneless short rib
  • 牛眼肉 (niú yǎn ròu) ribeye
  • 五花肉 (wǔ huā ròu) pork belly

Poultry is less common, but strips of boneless chicken thigh marinated in Shaoxing cooking wine, light soy sauce, and corn starch would work.

Offal is the secret to rich, deeply flavorful soups, chili, and bolognese. It’s also amazing in hotpot! For more muscular offal like gizzard and heart, score in a crosshatch pattern to expose surface area and decrease cook time.

  • 鸡胗 (jī zhēn) chicken gizzard
  • 鸡心 (jī xīn) chicken heart
  • 牛舌片 (niú shé piàn) thinly sliced beef tongue
  • 毛肚 (máo dù) flat tripe
  • 千辰肚 (qiān chén dù) leaf tripe

Seafood: light yet rich

hotpot party setup

Fish and shellfish are great for hotpot. They offer contrast from the heavier meats, but they are still flavorful and satisfying. Shellfish have the added benefit of really enriching the hotpot base while they cook.

For the best results, I recommend using tender white fish like 比目鱼 (bǐ mù yú) flounder, 鲈鱼 (lú yú) sea bass, or 罗非鱼 (luó fēi yú) tilapia. For the best flavor and texture, the fish should be sliced and marinated as in my Sichuan Spicy Boiled Fish recipe. 龙利鱼 (lóng lì yú) Sole is also a popular option, but most fillets in the supermarket are actually swai, which I do not recommend — it often tastes muddy and fishy.

On the shellfish side, fancy hotpot could feature oysters and
鲍鱼 (bào yú) abalone, but for a home hotpot party I recommend a much easier option: shrimp. The traditional choice is head-on whole prawns, but I prefer the convenience of peeled and deveined frozen shrimp. Shrimp are ready about 5 seconds after they turn pink. Also consider quartered scallops, mussels (cleaned and sand spit out), razor clams, and crab sticks.

Greens & Mushrooms: light and fresh

greens and mushrooms for an at-home, virtual hotpot party
White beech mushrooms 海鲜菇 / celtuce leaves AA菜

For a complete, balanced meal, we can’t miss the veggies! Leafy greens and mushrooms offer a nice break from the richness of the meat and seafood options. Mushrooms perfectly absorb the delicious broth for a meaty and satisfying bite that isn’t heavy. They’re ready after a quick dip in the broth — 3 to 5 seconds is perfect for leafy greens, 5 to 15 seconds for stemmed greens, and 5 to 30 seconds for mushrooms.

Anything that holds together well in soup is fair game here:

  • 茼蒿 (tóng hāo) Chrysanthemum greens
  • AA 菜 (AA cài) / 莴苣叶 (wō jū yè) celtuce leaves
  • 大白菜 (dà bái cài) Napa cabbage
  • 西洋菜 (xī yáng cài) watercress
  • 芥兰苗 (jiè lán miáo) baby Chinese broccoli / gailan
  • 金针菇 (jīn zhēn gū) enoki mushrooms
  • 王子菇 (wáng zǐ gū) King trumpet mushrooms — these cook in 30s but can cook for longer
  • 海鲜菇 (hǎi xiān gū) white beech mushrooms
  • 平菇 (píng gū) oyster mushrooms
  • 木耳 (mù ěr) wood ear mushrooms — soak ahead of time; these can cook for much longer without breaking down

Root Vegetables & Squashes: hearty and flavorful

sliced daikon radish and celtuce leaves for hotpot party
Sliced daikon 萝卜片 / celtuce greens AA菜

Root vegetables are a criminally underrated hotpot ingredient. They’re sturdy enough to stand up to a long cooking time, so they absorb a ton of flavor. I like to slice them a bit thicker so they can cook for longer; aim for about 3mm slices and cook 5 to 20 minutes. A little goes a long way here; I’d plan for a single vegetable (one potato, one segment of lotus root) for every 4 people. Again, feel free to use your imagination here!

  • 土豆 (tǔ dòu) potatoes
  • 红薯 (hóng shǔ) sweet potatoes
  • 萝卜 (luó bo) daikon radish
  • 莲藕 (lián ǒu) lotus root — these are a less common choice and one of my absolute favorites. I highly recommend you seek them out!
  • 山药 (shān yào) nagaimo / Chinese yam — crispy but a bit slimy, these can be polarizing
  • 冬笋 (dōng sǔn) bamboo shoot
  • 冬瓜 (dōng guā) winter melon

Soy Products & Prepared Foods: delicious and convenient

Now we’re getting to my favorites! In this category, I’m lumping all of the tofu products as well as all the specially-prepared hotpot proteins. You’ll find a huge variety of soy products in various forms that work well in hotpot. In addition, there are a stunning variety of meat and seafood based foods.

I would happily eat an entire hotpot meal of just prepared proteins and veggies for an easy meal with <10 min of total prep time. In addition to the obvious convenience factor, the prepared food items offer a ton of flavor bang for the effort buck.

I highly recommend buying a bunch of options for your hotpot party to find your favorites! Keep experimenting… even after years of eating hotpot almost weekly in the winter, I keep discovering new options. Here are some commonly available choices to get you started:

Vegetarian & Soy Products

Some soy products are packaged specifically for hotpot, while others are part of a well-stocked Chinese pantry. Unless otherwise noted below, most of these are best cooked for a long time (10 minutes or more). They don’t fall apart easily, and the longer they cook, the more flavor they absorb.

firm tofu and enoki mushrooms for hotpot party
thick slices of firm tofu 老豆腐 / enoki mushrooms 金针菇

Some are shelf-stable, which makes them particularly well-suited to preparing for an entire winter of hotpot parties!

Prepared Meat & Seafood Balls

I’ve corralled here all the premade fresh/frozen products with a seafood or meat component, usually pureed seafood/meat with a starch component. Compared to Western style meatballs, Chinese meatballs for hotpot prize a bouncy texture Q弹 (Q tán).

soy products for hotpot
fried tofu rolls 响铃卷 / fish tofu 鱼豆腐

These would be too much effort to make at home, so I would explore everything you can find premade. My husband and I agree that it’s not a hotpot party without 鱼豆腐 fish tofu!

  • 鱼豆腐 (yú dòu fǔ) fried fish tofu — it’s only shaped like tofu
  • 鱼丸 (yú wán) fish balls — usually made of milkfish or pollock. These are available plain, fried, or stuffed with various ingredients
    • 炸鱼丸 (zhá yú wán) fried fish balls
    • 鱼子鱼丸 (yú zǐ yú wán) fish balls stuffed with roe
    • 福州鱼丸 (fú zhōu yú wán) Fuzhou fish balls — a fish ball stuffed with a pork meatball!
  • 墨鱼丸 (mò yú wán) cuttlefish balls — available plain, stuffed with roe, striped with squid ink, stuffed with squid ink
  • 龙虾丸 (lóng xiā wán) (imitation) lobster meatballs — I’m not into imitation crab, but I love these
  • 牛肉丸 (niú ròu wán) beef meatballs
  • 肉丸 (ròu wán) pork meatballs
  • 午餐肉 (wǔ cān ròu) spam — yes, the meat in a can. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it — it makes for amazing broth and tastes great

Noodles & Grains: soak up all the good stuff

If somehow at the end of this all, you still have room for some carbs, noodles and grains are the perfect way to savor a bit more of your delicious hotpot base and soak up the rest of your hotpot sauce. Some swear that a bowl of white rice (ladle a little broth over top) is the only way to enjoy hotpot. Others love noodles of all types:

For a particularly hungry crowd, cook frozen dumplings or wontons right in the broth!

Dipping Sauce Station

hotpot party sauce bar ingredients

Whew! Still with me? It’s time for the final setup part of this hotpot party. In keeping with the choose your own adventure theme, lay out a selection of sauce ingredients. Each hotpot party attendee will mix a small bowl of dipping sauce to their own taste, adjusting and replenishing as desired. You can thin out the sauce with a couple teaspoons of hotpot broth.

Many of these are ingredients in my essential pantry ingredients series. The rest are readily available online and shelf-stable until opened. A little goes a long way, so once you stock up you’ll be ready for a whole season of hotpot parties.

My preferred hotpot sauce is sesame paste heavy, with just a touch of everything else on the list. For a super traditional Chongqing hotpot sauce, try sesame oil with minced garlic and salt.

You definitely don’t need all of the sauce ingredients below. Feel free to start with just sesame paste / peanut butter + a selection of the others

Wine Pairing for Hotpot Party

Cremant d’Alsace: Gustave Lorentz NV, serve at 6-8°C / 43-45°F
Cremant de Bourgogne: Veuve Ambal NV, serve at 6-8°C / 43-45°F

E. Guigal Crozes-Hermitage 2017, serve at 17-18°C / 63-64°F
E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône 2016, serve at 15-16°C / 59-61°F

hotpot with wine -- the ideal pairing

It’s not a party without wine! Although you can’t go wrong pairing hotpot with a crisp, cold beer, I really enjoy wine with my hotpot. For a instant party atmosphere: dry sparkling wine that pairs well without breaking the bank, something in the méthode traditionelle. Méthode traditionelle, aka méthode champenoise refers to a natural secondary fermentation in the bottle to give the wine its bubbles. The non-Champagnes of France are known as crémant.

It may be surprising with the wide variety of ingredients, but my favorite wine to pair with hotpot is actually a juice red wine with some soft tannins to cut through the richness: food-friendly Rhone Valley syrah blends. The jammy fruits complement hotpot’s bold flavors without competing. A good Côtes du Rhône AOC is super budget-friendly, but if you’re willing to step up a level, Crozes-Hermitage is the sweet spot.

Taking this Hotpot Party Virtual

Hotpot is perfect for a virtual dinner party because all the cooking happens during the meal. It’s slow and leisurely, perfect for a long chat with friends. And everyone can eat what they like, so it’s great for accommodating different dietary preferences. It scales infinitely — just add more induction cooktops and pots to keep foods separate (or party attendees socially distanced).

Bring out your favorite china, and plate up the fixings. Set up the induction cooktop and hotpot pot in the middle of the dining table, and surround it with all the ingredients. Each person has their own small bowl of sauce. Replenish or switch it up as you like.

To take this party online, all you need is a good webcam setup for your table. Set it back from the table a few feet and down at a 45° angle so everyone and everything shows up on camera. Good lighting will really improve the overall effect: I use this budget-friendly but high-quality Neewer ring light and tripod combo. Simply use your favorite video conference software to get the party started. If you have a TV near the table, I’d put up the video stream up there. If not, use a computer or tablet on a side table.

hotpot party table setup

Did you try this?

Please don’t be overwhelmed by the infinite options! You really only need the basic equipment, 1-3 ingredients from each category, lighting, and a webcam / phone / computer. It all comes together in less than an hour, complete with beautiful plating.

If you have a hotpot party at home, virtual or otherwise, we’d love to hear all about it! Please comment down below and tag us on Instagram at #thericelover and @thericeloverblog. If you have any questions or need help sourcing ingredients and supplies, please drop a comment down below or send us a message.

I hope this 云火锅 virtual hotpot party helps bring a little warmth and togetherness to you and yours this holiday season. Cheers, and happy hotpotting!

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