Tang Yousheng ( 唐友晟 ), known among friends as Yoshi, is a hot pot obsessive. He usually eats it weekly, and just days ahead of the Lunar New Year, he was feeling deprived.
“It’s been two weeks since I last had hot pot,” Tang said.
Luckily, he and his self-described hot pot partner in crime, Hu Ting ( 胡婷 ), found their fix at Shoo Loong Kan, a Sichuan-style joint in Flushing. It’s on the second floor of Tangram: a newish, kind of fancy mall filled with clothing stores and Chinese treats.
Their quest was timely. Hot pot is often eaten for the Lunar New Year, and the Year of the Rabbit dawns on Jan. 22.
Hot pot, essentially a big vessel of steaming broth that cooks at the center of your table at home or in a restaurant, is eaten communally. Diners add ingredients like meat, seafood, tofu and veggies to the constantly simmering broth, pull them out when they’re cooked, and then dip them in a flavorful sauce before eating them.
The fragrant steam from the hot pot has a way of permeating everything in the room. Tang and Hu prepare by shedding their coats and placing them in a plastic bin thoughtfully provided under the table.
“That’s how flavorful hot pot is,” Tang said.
“That’s why you usually wear pretty casual when you eat hot pot,” Hu added, dressed in a cherry-red track suit. While she was growing up in China, Hu’s family owned a hot pot restaurant in Mianyang, Sichuan Province. She still can’t get enough.
“Whenever I go back to Sichuan, I would have hot pot every day — or some sort of hot pot, dry pot, hot pot, spicy pot almost every day — and my family were so sick of it,” Hu said.
Still, she said, she’s no match for Tang, who says he’s eaten hot pot hundreds if not thousands of times. He’s had it once or twice a week on average over the past decade, and his record stands at six days in a single week.
“See, that’s why I call him the king of hot pot!” said Hu.
Hu and Tang ponder the menu. Their order includes goose intestine, duck blood, Spam and two types of broth.
Then they prepare the dipping sauces. Hu makes an authentic Sichuan one with garlic, scallion and sesame oil.
Soon, a server who gives his name as Tomato appears to pour the broths into a yin-yang style pot. Others bring 20 or so plates of ingredients. They start with tripe, which Hu says is traditional for Sichuan-style hot pot.
Tang tilts his head back and breathes in the broth.
Hot pot can count New York Times critic Pete Wells among its fans. He says there are so many new restaurants, he’s having trouble keeping track.
“There was a time where you could name every hot pot restaurant in New York City, but that is long gone,” Wells said. “The numbers just get unwieldy.”
Tang figures he’s visited most of them. He said his passion for the hot soup dates back celebrating the Lunar New Year during his childhood in Shanghai in the 1980s.
“Once a year, for Chinese New Year’s Eve, we were able to splurge on a meal, and we would traditionally have hot pot,” Tang said. “We looked forward to it like a month in advance.”
That makes hot pot literally a warm memory for him.
“Back then, we didn’t have indoor heating, so in the wintertime we all just wore jackets indoors,” Tang said. “And we all just would sit around the table with a steaming hot pot.” The family would shed their coats as the room warmed up.
For Tang, it’s so much more than just a meal. “It’s family, getting together, everyone sharing from a single pot,” he said — a single pot of steaming soup, filled with boundless possibilities to begin the new year.