By: Jim Bamboulis
Hot Pot is a traditional dining experience that dates back more than 1000 years in China. A hot-pot of simmering broth acts as the centrepiece, placed in the middle of a table while family members, friends gather around.
It’s a hands-on, interactive dining experience. Everyone dips several different types of raw ingredients into the hot-pot, cooking, eating and of course socializing with the group at the table. It’s a cultural tradition honed by the Chinese. And now, this tradition has made its way to Toronto thanks in large part to Morals Village restaurant.
With 600+ locations in China, Morals Village knows a thing or two about hosting a traditional Chinese Hot Pot experience. An all-you-can-eat restaurant, it fosters the interactive dining experience all while showcasing gourmet Chinese cuisine and Szechuan flavours.
But for those who’ve never done Hot Pot, the menu and how the whole process works can be a bit intimidating. Not to worry, we’ve got you covered. I caught up with Manager Ernest Lam to discuss all things Hot Pot, what role the Hot Pot experience plays in Chinese culture and of course a very easy to follow 5-step guide to making the most out of your Hot Pot dining experience for first-timers. Let’s go!
Q. Why is Chinese Hot Pot so popular?
A. It’s the same as wanting a hot chocolate, it’s like going to have a spa. Having a Chinese Hot Pot is very satisfying. The different combinations of flavours, allows a customer to a really full dining experience. And because we’re an all-you-can-eat restaurant, patrons can get really full. You just don’t get that in other places.
Hot Pot isn’t like BBQ where it makes your mouth really dry. Even the spicy Hot Pot, we add a numb spice which allows your body to get hot and you sweat. And that’s good for you. But at the same time, this makes the inside of your body dry. The numb spice counters that, re-balances that and keeps you hydrated. Especially in the winter, this allows the body to rebalance itself internally.
Hot Pot is great all year round. During the warmer months, we use a green pepper spice because it helps clean out your internal system. We adapt the menu depending on the season. Green pepper soup base cools down your body during the spring and summer.
Q. What role does Hot Pot play in Chinese culture?
A. Hot Pot is creating a lot of buzz in Toronto because of the culture behind it. I don’t think people generally interact with their food. Here, you’re cooking, you’re eating then you’re cooking again. In Chinese culture, you eat as a group, not as an individual. And because it’s a group setting, overall, it’s a more interactive experience.
We all cook from one pot and socialize with our group doing so. And that’s what makes it so special. The social environment breeds social interaction with each other and allows you to further interact with your food.
Q. Do Hot Pot menus vary depending on a particular region of China? More seafood in one area, more meat based in another?
A. Geographically, there are different flavours. In the countryside, seafood isn’t as popular. It’s more about the farm, the chicken, the beef. Around the seashore area, seafood is preferred. They love the freshness of the seafood and they like less flavour of the broth so they can taste more of the seafood. It’s interesting because sometimes customers will order specific menu items based on the region of China they are from.
The soup base also depends on the region. In colder regions, the base plays a more central role, a spicier broth is preferred. This preference in soup base is considered true, traditional Chinese Hot Pot. But in the south, they’re not really focused on the soup base, they’re focused more on the ingredients such as the seafood. If you ever try Cantonese Hot Pot for example, you probably won’t get a lot of choice when it comes to soup base.
Q. Take us through the 5-Step Guide to enjoy the Chinese Hot Pot experience
Step 1 – Choose a Broth and bring it to a boil
Listed on the first column. There are 11 different soup bases to choose depending on what flavour and spice level you prefer. If you can’t choose just one type of broth, you can order two and split your hot-pot with a milder, sweeter corn soup base on the left and a spicier broth on the right. Again, it all comes down to experimenting with flavours.
And not to worry, once seated, the Servers here are with you every step of the way. They turn on your table-top oven and ensure that your broth is hot enough, brought to a boil and safe for food to be dipped into, cooked and of course, eaten.
Step 2 – Choose your all-you-can-eat items that you will dip into the broth
We have over 80 items to choose from including hand-made seafood, veggie, noodles, handmade meatballs and soy, with upgrade items like Wagyu beef. The good part about all-you-can-eat is that you choose what you want.
We don’t need to make a combo for you, that’s the fun part. That’s where you can create your own dishes. If you like just veggies, have just veggies. Want seafood and veggies, you can just do that too. We don’t have a set course.
Step 3 – Choose your dipping sauce
This is a fun step for most customers. This step allows you to further customize your meal with flavour. At this point, you have the opportunity to further combine flavours and aromas that you might enjoy.
We have 8 different dipping sauces including Sesame Oil Garlic, homemade oyster sauce and Szechuan Chili. It all depends on your preferences. More garlic or more spice, it’s really up to you. Part of the fun is experimenting with different flavours.
Step 4 – Choose a drink
You’ll need something to wash it down with. Of course you can choose coke or sprite but what we recommend is for you to try one of our unique drinks.
Our most popular drinks are the fresh blend watermelon juice, kiwi juice, and homemade winter lemon tea. They’re all really delicious. Again, it’s entirely up to you and your preference.
Step 5 – Dip, cook, enjoy!
Everything needs to be cooked. So don’t be shy; dip all of your items into the broth. So when do you know when it’s ready to eat? If you cook at home, you generally know when food is cooked but fundamentally, make sure your broth is boiling.
We slice all of our proteins very thin here so the food is generally easy to cook and quickly cooked. When I was a kid, my Mom told me that if your food comes to the surface of the broth, when it floats, then generally speaking it’s ready to eat. Of course, you can always pull the food out of the broth, see if it’s cooked and if necessary dip it in again if you feel it needs more time.
Remember, it’s an experience. It’s about interacting with your food. But if you have any questions or concerns, a Server is always there for you.
When it comes to chop sticks, we give you two sets. This is unique to Morals Village. The longer ones are used to pick up the raw ingredients, the shorter gold ones are used when your food is cooked. That way, you don’t cross-contaminate and it’s always safe for the customer.
Q. What do you tell someone who’s hesitant about giving this a try?
A. Chinese Hot Pot is no different than going into a Subway. You choose the type of bread, you choose a type of broth. You choose different types of veggies and meats. Everything is up to your custmization and the flavour is chosen by you. At the end of the day, people tend to be afraid because they don’t know what their food will become, what the final taste will be.
At Morals Village, we have high standards. A full dining experience includes exceptional customer service, ambiance has to be there, food quality has to be there and freshness has to be there. Customers shouldn’t be intimidated. We want the customer to have a very full dining experience. You know you’ll have great service here and you know you’ll have great food here.
It’s an all-you-can-eat culinary experience that will make you want to come back again.