Winter is coming, and that means it's time for deliciously hot food — and lots of it.
It has become almost a tradition of sorts, amongst my friends and myself, to go on a hotpot binge every winter. It's the easiest way to warm up; you have a large bowl of piping hot broth, usually of the mouth-numbingly spicy variety, and an endless supply of ingredients at hand to fill even the hungriest of stomachs.
Sichuan hot pot - Matt Ryall, Flickr
If you aren't familiar with the concept of hotpot, it's all very simple. Hotpot is a communal dining affair, where a group of people sit around a large pot of broth, simmering over a stove set in the centre of the table, and cook ingredients as they eat. The broth can be anything from plain chicken stock, to a fiery Sichuan concoction of peppercorns, chilli, ginger, and garlic. If you're interested in trying both, you can get a split-pot with half spicy, and half plain broth.
The ingredients also vary, and you can usually select the ones you would prefer from a menu, but there are also definite staples. Enoky mushroom, for example; thinly sliced beef, lamb, and pork; fish and other meat balls; tripe; noodles; vegetables; and a whole range of sauces you can mix and match. You'll find that most restaurants have similar items available on their menus, only in different portions, and for different prices.
It can be a little overwhelming at first, especially if you're not familiar with some of the ingredients on the list, but experimenting is half the fun! Close your eyes and take a stab at a random item on the menu and see what you can come up with.
So where can you get hotpot in Sydney? For starters, you could make it at home, but when you're looking for a night out, it's best to get out. Here are the four places my friends and I usually cycle through every winter:
Like all hotpot places, Shancheng offers both spicy and non-spicy broths. The spicy broth comes in four different levels of spiciness, and usually the servers are hesitant to let you try anything over 'Normal' if they know it's your first time. My very adventurous friends, all seasoned hotpot diners, decided to go for Extra Spicy once, and were met with raised eyebrows and sore stomachs the next day.
At Shancheng, the menus are iPads. You select the broth type, the ingredients and portions, any drinks or side dishes you'd like, and hand it off to the server. They can get pretty busy on the weekends, but otherwise everything arrives promptly and without hassle. As a restaurant specialising in hotpot, the gas stoves at Shancheng are built into the tables, so the rim of the pot is at the perfect height for everyone at the table to reach.
They're open seven days a week, from 11:30am to 11:30pm. I would advise you to make a booking at night, so you're guaranteed a table rather than having to wait outside.
This is part of a larger chain of Sichuan restaurants across Sydney and Melbourne. Some locations have hotpot, while others only offer dinner. We used to go to the Chinatown store, but when they closed for renovations a few years back, we relocated to the one on Glebe Point Road.
The menu here at Red Chilli is dependent on what kind of meal you would like: a la carte, where you order items individually, or as a buffet. We always go for the buffet option, which gives you 90 minutes to eat as much as you'd like. For around $28 a person, you can order from a selection of meat and vegetables, which is the option we usually go for; you can also pay a little extra to get seafood as well.
You can also opt for the unlimited sauces option, where you can mix your own sauces at the sauce bar, or you can order one bowl of sauce for the entire meal. Unless you prefer a lot of sauce, I would recommend going for the one-bowl option, as the portions are pretty big.
Red Chilli is open seven days a week, for two different sessions. The lunch session is from 11:30am to 2:30pm, and dinner is from 5:00pm to 10:00pm. You should definitely book a table for this one; the wait time can get pretty long on the weekends.
Spicy Sichuan Restaurant has two branches: one in Glebe, near Red Chilli, and one tucked away between Goulburn and Pitt Streets. We first found out about this one in a Chinese magazine, where they were advertising $25 hotpot buffet, so we decided to try it out.
At this restaurant, you'll find some of the more unusual ingredients, such as lamb brains. Orders are placed via iPad, which is always helpful because it has pictures and English translations if your Chinese isn't all that great. The broth was much oilier than the other hotpot restaurants we'd been to thus far, so you should always keep water close at hand.
Outside Spicy Sichuan Restaurant, from simonfoodfavourites.blogspot.com.au
It's a little too cramped for me, and I don't take up much room to begin with; it can also get a little stuffy in the dining area, especially on a busy day. There's also an upstairs for those who are looking for dinner. The service is understandably slower when they're packed, but once you get started, it's mostly smooth sailing from there. I would probably try the Glebe location next time.
The City location is open every day from 11:30am to 2:30pm for lunch, and then 5:00pm to 10:00pm for dinner. Booking is definitely recommended, as the wait time can get quite long, even on a weekday.
iPot Sydney 愛鍋 Shop 4, 4-10 Goulburn Street, Sydney NSW 2000
Phone: (02) 8355 3188
If you're not big on the communal dining front, then you might like to try iPot. Each personl is given their own miniature electric stove, built into the table, and they get a little pot of broth to themselves. This means that everyone can try all the different kinds of bases they have — including a special herbal broth, and even various congee ones.
The ingredients you order are set in the middle of the table for you to share, so it's still fun and interactive, even if you're not sharing the same pot. You can also concoct your own sauces at the sauce bar near the entrance, which gives you a huge range of ingredients such as peanut sauce, satay sauce, soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil, and all the usual favourites.
iPot is also known for their handmade ground fish or meat, called wah. These are shaped into balls, or scooped into a piping bag, for you to add into your pot. The idea of the piping bag is so that you can shape the wah into noodle-like strands.
I definitely recommend any of the seafood ones, particularly the cuttlefish. You can even get gluten-free and vegetarian options in your hotpot.
The Sydney location is open seven days a week, from 11:30am to 3:00pm for lunch, and then 5:00pm to 10:30pm for dinner. Bookings usually aren't necessary during the day, but I would probably book at night, just in case.