Apr 5, 2016
Today we will visit one of the most popular Chinese dishes: hot pot. There are seemingly 100s of hot pot restaurants in Suzhou and it is difficult o decide which to choose – or even know whether they have any differences at all. Going on a local’s recommendation, we chose to visit a popular chain Taiwan Hot Pot. This has branches in SIP on the second floor of Suzhou’s twin towers, Yo Ba Ba, at Xinghai Square and in the basement of the new Eslite Mall on the west of Times Square.
If you don’t know, a hot pot is just that, a heated pot in which diners cook their chosen ingredients at the table. This is usually done by having a hot plate in the centre of the table, as at Taiwan Hot Pot, or by having a camping style gas burner. Hot Pot dates back over 1,000 years and is thought to have originated in Mongolia and spread throughout China and Asia. Understandably, regional varieties sprang up, with the best known being Japan’s shabu shabu and Sichuan’s spicy pepper pot. Taiwan’s version is distinctive for the addition of a dipping sauce and both branches of Taiwan Hot Pot offer a large array of ingredients to make a dip that suits your taste. These range from garlic and chives, chillies and chilli oil and a range of soy sauces and vinegars. There is also a thick peanut sauce, which was my personal favourite. Being set out buffet style, you can revisit the sauces as many times as you like until you get the balance of flavours just right.
The hot pot itself can be a single pot with a choice of soup flavours or can be divided into two to allow you to have two distinct soups. We opted for the latter, having a red super spicy sauce in one side and a more mellow white pork soup in the other. The ingredients you choose from include different cuts of pork or beef (even wagyu beef is available if you don’t mind driving up the cost), fish and seafood, dumplings and meatballs, and all the vegetables you could want; down to a choice of half a dozen or so different types of mushroom.
Everything we tried was delicious; so much so that my wife and I agree that it is the tastiest Chinese food we have yet to eat here. Also, the cooking part was easy and fun. In contrast to a bbq grill, you don’t have to keep turning the food and checking it is not overdone. Just dump it in the pot and watch it boil. A pretty good Taiwan beer, too, can accompany the hot soup but tea is provided for free.
Taiwan Hot Pot is incredibly popular. I suspect that is because meals are still communal and family affairs in China and this is a great way to share a meal together. And herein lies the only drawback of Taiwan Hot Pot: getting in in the first place. Unless you can phone through and book a table well in advance you’d better bring a healthy dose of patience with you. Upon arriving at the restaurant you are given a queue number and asked to wait at the tables and chairs provided outside (if you wander off shopping, they will call you when your table is ready). Now the first time we went we waited for one and a half hours and the second time at the Eslite Mall, two hours. By the time we got in I was prepared to be in a bad mood with the place and my critical heckles were up. A bowl of soup later, the wait was forgotten and I was happily stirring a delicious, meaty broth.
Taiwan Hot Pot: 熬八年台湾火锅
About the Column
Markus is from the Isle of Wight in the UK and had been living in Suzhou since 2013. It is his first time living in China and before this he was in London. He has been teaching English all of his adult life and in HE since 2000. He is lucky to have his wife with him in Suzhou and together they are making a new life. His interests include eating out (a lot) and exploring local areas on his ebike. And recently, walking a doggie.