Seeing as the Lay The Table recipes for Chinese hot pot (Cantonese-style) and Sichuan hot pot are so popular with readers, I thought I’d provide a few tips on how to prepare hot pot dipping sauces.
The great thing about hot pot is that there are no hard and fast rules about how to prepare and eat it. It’s really up to you what ingredients you add to the pot, which means it’s great for vegetarians too. And because everyone has his or her own dipping sauce bowl, individual tastes can be catered for. There’s always someone who likes their sauce extra spicy!
Nowadays, I just bring out all the jars and bottles of Chinese condiments that I have – light soy sauce, very hot chilli paste, sweet chilli sauce, chilli oil, sesame oil, sesame paste, shacha sauce, XO sauce etc – and family and friends can create their personal dipping sauces by adding a bit of this and a dash of that. If it tastes really strange, simply start again! There really are no rules about what should go with what. Just make smaller quantities so that you can try a variety of dipping sauces during the meal. You’ll soon work out what you like and don’t like.
When I was younger, my mother used to make a very simple dipping sauce of soya sauce mixed with a bit of vegetable oil and a dash of sesame oil. Sesame oil is very strong and goes a long way, so you only need a little. You can also add chilli sauce to the mixture. I also grew up loving XO sauce, a spicy seafood sauce. Because hot pot food can be a little bland, a spicy dipping sauce gives it an extra kick.
Some Chinese people also add a raw egg to their dipping sauce, to reduce the ‘heat’ absorbed by the food and avoid developing a sore throat afterwards (this is according to Chinese health philosophy). I tried this just last night when I had Sichuan hot pot, along with shacha sauce (Chinese barbecue sauce made from dried shrimp, brill, soybean oil, garlic, shallots and chilli), some chopped coriander and a dash of soya sauce. It makes the dipping sauce richer and thicker, and it was really tasty, even though I’m usually a bit squeamish about raw eggs. I’m going to stick to this dipping sauce in the future!
Another ingredient that my friend Susan S. Cheung reminded me about is fermented bean curd, which I used to eat regularly until I left home. I used to have it with congee, rice and cooked with Chinese greens called tung choi. But I don’t think I’ve ever had it with hot pot as part of a dipping sauce. I can’t wait to try it next time. She also reminded me about the garnishes for the dipping sauces – finely chopped coriander, spring onions and raw bean sprouts, which you can add to your bowl.
There are many regional variations of dipping sauce too. I’ve been writing about the Hong Kong Cantonese and the Sichuan/Taiwan styles. But my advice is to simply experiment until you come up with one or a few dipping sauces that you love. Let me know what your favourites are!
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