As a child, I had a very multicultural upbringing when it came to food.
Of course, there was the Indian food of my parents’ home country. And there were plenty of newly learned British classics from their adopted country. My mum also taught herself Italian, Greek, and other cuisines from cookery books. When we travelled abroad, mum sought out recipes of dishes we loved from the chefs, and these too became part of the repertoire.
And then there were the steam boat feasts!
My family’s friendship group was wonderfully diverse; one family we were (and are) very close to (and who had favourite “uncle” and “aunt” status with my sister and I) hailed from China by way of Malaysia. Uncle John had also run Chinese restaurants in the UK many years before we came to know them and is a very accomplished cook. Every New Year (sometimes by the Gregorian calendar and sometimes for the Chinese one) Uncle John and Auntie Margaret hosted the most wonderful steam boats at their farmhouse down the road from us, and it was one of my very favourite experiences – I looked forward to it every year!
At one side of their huge kitchen table sat two traditional steam boat pots – the kind with a heating cylinder at the centre and a moat of stock around the outside, though these days electric versions are more common than those heated by charcoal. The stock took Uncle John days to make and was light yet full of flavour, becoming richer through the hours as everyone cooked their treats in the hot broth. The huge table was covered with all manner of delicious items to cook or heat in the broth, everything from fresh raw seafood, meat and vegetables to noodles, rice cakes, homemade fishballs and even tiny individual omelettes with a meatpaste stuffing. Even the carrots weren’t just carrots, but finely sliced and cut into intricate butterfly shapes using a specialist cutter! The steam boat dishes were supplemented by many other platters, mostly Chinese but with a mix of international dishes too, since each guest brought along something homemade to add to the table. Steam boat is very sociable, with guests stood around in the kitchen, choosing tidbits to put inside wire-netting ladles and placing them into the hot liquid to cook, and chatting together as they waited. The steam boat feast went on for hours… we kids used to race into the kitchen, join the feast for a while before racing out to play in the abandoned farm buildings and expansive grounds… and then we’d come back in to eat some more!
Needless to say, steam boat holds a very special place in my memories, and I still love the excitement, deliciousness and social aspect of it today. Thus far, I’ve been referring to it as steam boat, which is what people from Malaysia and Singapore call it, but in mainland China it’s known as 火锅, literally ‘fire pot”, which is translated to English as Hot Pot.
Back before Oriental City closed, there was a hot pot restaurant within the complex, just opposite the huge Oriental supermarket there. In the several years since it’s closed, I’ve most commonly enjoyed hot pot at a cheap and cheerful restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue.
But now there’s a new Hot Pot place in China Town, and this one is altogether more attractive, with wooden floors, leatherette banquettes, and a far more extensive menu.
What sets Hot Pot London apart is the mix of Chinese and Thai culinary traditions, bringing some Thai elements to the steam boat experience, as well as offering a wide range of Thai street food to complement the more typical Chinese menu. The choice is wide enough that you could have an entire meal here without trying the hot pot, but that would be a missed opportunity, as the range of broths and ingredients are awfully good.
On the drinks front, there are cocktails, beers, wines and a variety of soft drinks to choose from. Between us we enjoy a Watermelon & Lychee juice (£5.50), a Rose Martini cocktail (£8.50) and two Singha beers (£3.95 each).
While I’d love to try much more of Hot Pot’s non hot pot menu, we need to save space for the feast to come, so we limit ourselves to a shared appetiser of Som Tum Thai Papaya Salad (£6.50), a light, fresh and flavour-packed starter.
In keeping with other restaurants I’ve visited, Hot Pot have built in stoves embedded in each table and offer the option of single or twin pots of broth. I always like to have more choice, so we ask for Herbal Drunken Chicken Broth in one half (£6) and Thai Coconut Green Curry Broth in the other half (£7).
To cook in our broths we choose the Emerald Green Noodles (£3.50), the Vegetable Set (£12.95), the Speciality Meat Platter (£23.50), Fresh Tiger Prawns (£11.50) and a portion of Fried Tofu Skin (£5.50).
The meat platter, vegetable set and (4) tiger prawns are a little expensive for the quantity, even taking into account that the quality is good. You could easily spend a great deal more here, especially if you’re feeling greedy – I suggest keeping a tally in your head as you order, especially if choosing individual items rather than sets.
For me, the stars of the show are the Thai Coconut Green Curry Broth (though the chicken broth is pure comfort food, and also very good), plus the Fried Tofu Skin which we enjoy dunking into the green curry broth. The rest of the ingredients are pretty good, though I think chewy rice cakes or udon noodles might have been a better texture than the emerald green noodles, which look great but don’t carry much flavour. The mushrooms and corn within the veg set are excellent, and the thin slices of pork and beef too – the cubes of beef we are less keen on, I think sliced meat works better. The prawns are great and I’d have liked to have a little more seafood but was conscious of the prices.
A really nice touch is Hot Pot’s sauce counter, where you can mix your own little dishes of condiments in which to dip your freshly cooked items — either to your own tastes or following the guide menus for some classic mixes.
Keen to try the dessert menu, we order a Mango Sticky Rice (£9.50) and one scoop of green tea ice cream (£2.95). The mango sticky rice seems very pricy to me but it’s really very delicious, as is the much-better-value scoop of ice cream, silky smooth and with an intensity of matcha flavour that isn’t disguised by the addition of too much sugar.
Service is helpful, and there’s a wonderfully wide range of hot pot ingredients to choose from. The restaurant interior is comfortable and welcoming. All of which combine to make this a great place to enjoy the steam boat / hot pot experience with friends. It doesn’t come cheap. Our feast for two adds up to £112.05 plus service, more than double a meal at my cheap and cheerful alternative around the corner. I’d still come again here though… there are some unusual and high quality hot pot ingredients here I’d like to try more of, not to mention the extensive range of broths and the entire non steam boat Thai street food menu.
Kavey Eats dined as review guests of Hot Pot Restaurant.