Hot Pot Inferno, Beijing

When Jacob and I first moved to Beijing we were infatuated with hot pot. It was the beginning of winter, when low temperatures and relentless winds made dinner over a pot of boiling broth very enticing. We didn't have a kitchen in our first apartment and ate out almost every night at hot pot restaurants both cheap and pricey.

Then, spring came. With the warmer weather emerged the more discerning, and lazier, eater in us. Why should I pay higher prices to cook my own food? Isn't the purpose of eating out to sit back and enjoy other people's creations?

So we avoided hot pot completely until a two weeks ago. It was freezing in Beijing and we walked past a hutong restaurant through whose windows we saw only steam and blurry outlines of people dipping food into a pot. Sold.

The place was as local as you could imagine. "No smoking" signs covered the walls but every other patron was puffing on a cigarette. Tabletops were cracked and peeling. Beer was served in little neon water tumblers manufactured for small children. But the attraction was the hot pot itself, this ancient iron monster heated by charcoal, not those nouveau thingies with induction cookers. (I particularly love the photo up top, in with the hot pot looks like this inferno surrounded by bits of swimming goji berries and enoki mushrooms.)

I opted for the clear broth instead of the sinus-clearing spicy broth. We ordered our usual spread of food, which is way too much for two people: lamb, shiitakes, enoki, spinach, cabbage, vermicelli, all to be cooked and dipped in a peanut sesame sauce.

Granted, I have had much better hot pot, in much better environments. And at 71 RMB for two, it was the most expensive meal I have ever eaten in a hutong hole with sketchy hygiene and cracking tables. But then again, after a year of avoiding hot pot, it was a novelty to sit in front of a flaming relic from a bygone era, and yes, cook our own food.