Hot Pots… our new going out! With the whole lockdown in Bangor in Northern Ireland, hot pots have become our new weekly date night, where we’d fire up our cheap and cheerful hot pot in the garden sun house, and enjoy with some drinks, some music, and a spicy Chinese Sichuan hot pot soup. We do occasionally fire up other hot pots, from scratch even, including Jim Jum a hot and sour tom-yum-like soup (pictured below), with lots of herbs and a homemade ‘Nam Jim Jim Jum’ chilli sauce from Thailand’s Isaan province (Northeastern Thailand) 🌶 But with a shelf of ready-made and ready-to-use Sichuan hot pot bases available at local Asian Supermarkets (Asia Supermarket Belfast) they are just so simple to fire together in no time.
How to Make a Sichuan Hot Pot at Home?
Of course, it is possible to make these Sichuan soup bases from scratch, where the obvious ingredients include the signature fiery/numbing ‘Mala’ flavours with red chillies and Sichuan peppercorns. But there is no real need to do so given these premade packs and soup bases are easy to buy locally or online. Otherwise you really just need 3 things:
A Tabletop Hot Pot: The first thing you need is a tabletop hot pot, preferably an electric hot pot, which we found through a quick search on Amazon, under £20 and with next day delivery. By far the best investment for us since the start of lockdown.
A Sichuan Hot Pot Soup Base: If not found at your local Asia Supermarkets, then they can be easily found online for delivery. Then just add some water or stock to the hot pot and put/pour in the Sichuan hot pot base.
Meat and Veg: Some ingredients are more traditional than others, but I’d really just go for a mix of anything you enjoy. We typically include sliced meats, pork balls, sweetcorn, leaf veg, and rice vermicelli noodles. Just throw them in to cook/boil.
This would be Sichuan hot pot at its simplest, thrown together in a matter of minutes, and fairly well replicates any hot pot in China. Even we were surprised at how cheap and easy, yet authentic it is. We were also able to change it to our own tastes, with savoury stocks, and flavourings and condiments like more salt, chilli flakes, Sichuan peppercorn, then spring onions and coriander… and we’d often cut back on excessive oil.
Best Sichuan Hot Pot Soup Bases Ranked
We are fairly new to Sichuan Hot Pots, but I am kind of obsessed with the unique food experiences they offer, and the somewhat extreme Mala flavours famous from Chongqing and Sichuan. They’re definitely not for those sensitive to spicy food. At the same time, we have eaten a couple of these brands in China, and we even tracked the origins of the Sichuan hot pot to Cygnet Hot Pots in Chongqing, so we may be swayed slightly by the memories evoked from these experiences. Anyway, here we try to rank and review the best hot pot soup bases.
1. Haidilao Hot Pot Soup Base (Hai Di Lao)
With nearly 1000 chain restaurants worldwide (including the U.K.), HaiDiLao is by far the biggest Sichuan Hot Pot chain, and its popularity is probably best highlighted by the massive queues where the franchise is almost better known for its time-wasting gimmicks, like free massage, games rooms and car washes, to make the wait more bearable. Anyway, as far as hot pot bases go, HaiDiLao would be the most popular at Asia Supermarkets worldwide, and they offer the ideal introduction to the mala flavours of Sichuan Hot Pots. Like most of this list (4 of 5) the soup base comes in a packet, just snip off the corner, pour in the contents, and you have more or less replicated the HaiDiLao hot pot at home.
2. De Zhuang Hot Pot Soup Base
Like most Sichuan hot pot brands, De Zhuang originates from Chongqing China, the birthplace of the Sichuan hot pot despite no longer being in Sichuan Province itself (Chongqing separated to become an independent municipality in 1997). Actually, this brand is completely new to me, but they seem to be fairly big in China (born 1999), and appear to be expanding internationally. They’re not so different to the HaiDiLao Hot Pot soup base either, big on the mala flavours, and simple to make with the pour in packets. It’s really a coin toss between the two. Fun fact, Dezhuang holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest hot pot with a diameter of 10-meters, over 1-meter in height, and it apparently uses over 20 tons in ingredients and broth soup.
3. Little Sheep Hot Pot Soup Base
Originating from Inner Mongolia, which is said to be the birthplace of all hot pots (900 years ago), Little Sheep is technically not a Sichuan hot pot. However, their hot pot soup base is very much Sichuan-centric with big-hitting mala flavours along with some less common spices and flavours including cloves, star anise, and black bean. It probably wouldn’t be the best introduction to Sichuan hot pot bases, but arguably it may be better given the wider depth in flavour, and with 300 chain restaurants across China, Asia, and the United States it is hard to argue with its popularity. Little Sheep again is a simple pour in packet, and it definitely wins in cuteness!
4. Cygnet Hot Pot Soup Base
Known to be the first-ever commercial hot pot restaurant ever, Cygnet Hot Pot was our first Sichuan Hot Pot made at home, as we sought to replicate our visit to their main branch in Hongya Cave, Chongqing. And it most definitely transported us back to China, replicating both the flavours and smells of hot pot restaurants, and the overall experience set us off in this somewhat weird obsession with hot pots. As we travelled through food. At the same time, unlike in their Chongqing restaurants (pictured at the bottom), the Cygnet Hot Pot base uses a solid fatty butter base instead of the pour-in oil packets, which kind of put us off any future purchases.
5. LaoGanMa Hot Pot Soup Base (Lao Gan Ma)
When you talk about Sichuan food and mala flavours, it is hard to see past Laoganma, a household name in China since the 1990s with their world-famous mala flavoured chilli oils. So you would think LaoGanMa, which translates as ‘Old Grandmother’, would fair well in joining the fairly similar hot pot soup market, as they literally make chilli oils for soups. But we were fairly underwhelmed here, with a lack in flavour and spiciness, and it was a bit like just eating chilli oil. But it is easily fixed with some added flavours and condiments. Again Laoganma is a simple pour in packet so it at least has that going for it.
The Authentic Chongqing Hot Pot
Despite being more known for gimmicks, I would honestly start out with Haidilao (Hai Di Lao), simply because they’re the standard that Sichuan Hot Pots are set against. It is also the hot pot we keep going back (3 times now). At the same time, I would happily mix it up a bit with Black Sheep and the De Zhuang Hot Pot Soup Base, although we will leave Laoganma (Lao Gan Ma) to their amazing chilli oils for my noodles. And I don’t think we could stomach the amount of fat/oil from the Cygnet Hot Pot Soup Base again. But it is all down to personal taste.
At the same time, people will often look for authenticity in the original ‘Chongqing hot pots’, whereas HaiDiLao originated from Jianyang (Chengdu), so it would De Zhuang, or tracing back to the first commercial hot pot it would be Cygnet Hot Pot if you can stomach the butter base.
The term Sichuan Hot Pots as well is like an umbrella term to cover a number of regional hot pots from Sichuan Province including Malatang Spicy Hot Pot, and Mala Xiang Guo, and the emphasis really is on those ‘mala’ flavours of fiery red chillies and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. So it all comes down to personal preference as well as familiarity when it comes to recreating past eating experiences. And really the best hot pot soup base is your favourite hot pot soup base. And ours are definitely inspired by those times in Chongqing!
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