Growing up in Florida, the word “winter” was never in my vocabulary. Pools were never covered, flip-flops were worn year-round, and the closest thing anyone had resembling a coat was a thin cotton hoodie. Life was good.
Then I moved to Seoul a few years ago and everything changed. Initially, I thought winter lasted a couple of months. I imagined wearing cute boots and petticoats, sticking my tongue out to catch snow flakes. I pictured myself making snow angels with my students. But then I quickly realized: winter sucks. It takes a solid 5-10 more minutes to get dressed in the morning, you can’t feel the snow when it hits your tongue, and making snow angels ruins your hair. As a Floridian, my idea of winter was shattered in about a week.
That is, until I tried Chinese hot pot.
Seoul, much like many places in the world, has enough Chinese immigrants to boast some pretty outstanding Chinese food. And the thing that tops my personal list, especially during the upcoming winter months, is that flavorful, steaming bowl of broth.
Needless to say, I was pretty pleased when I landed a job in Shanghai.
Though I knew that I was returning to a place that experienced all four seasons again, I felt somehow prepared—somehow experienced. At least I no longer held onto the previous romantic notion that winter would be a white wonderland. Plus, I knew even if I was freezing my butt off, I could be in a hot pot restaurant in no time.
For those of you who don’t know, hot pot is basically China’s version of fondue. The broth varies depending on what region you’re in. The Sichuan province fills their broth with hot chili peppers and peppercorns, while Beijing offers a mild broth, intended to gain flavor as the night goes on. Shanghai in particular is not known for its hot pot, but since it’s so multicultural, you can find all sorts of versions throughout the city.
For my first experience, I chose a place called Dong Lai Shun, famous for its lamb and peanut satay.
The mild broth arrived in a beautiful, brass cauldron, with a small coal-burning chimney. The waiter gave us complementary candied hawthorn berries, and a menu…all in Chinese. Luckily, I was with some adventurous girlfriends. We ended up circling items based on the popular childhood game, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” and pointing. It turned out well.
A cart arrived, full of cabbage heads, bowls of mushrooms and plates of bok choy. A platter of thinly sliced pork sat next to a generous helping of lamb meatballs. It was enough to feed a family of ten, but the four of us ordered more.
The delicate broth turned rich, and we ladled large helpings into ceramic bowls. We slurped, and we dipped anything and everything into our peanut sauce concoctions. The steam from the cauldron billowed around our faces.
It was a night I won’t soon forget—not only for the great food, but for the experience. Because, even while I’m far from my warm home in Florida, there’s always a cozy hot pot in Shanghai to gather around with good friends.