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Hot pot - delicious, bubbling cauldron of choose-your-own-adventure soup. It cooks in the center of a restaurant table. It's often eaten with big groups of friends and family on the Lunar New Year, which is tomorrow. Olivia Ebertz from member station WNYC met up with a couple of hot pot fans in anticipation of the day.
OLIVIA EBERTZ, BYLINE: This pair of total hot pot obsessives are named Hu Ting and Tang Yousheng. The hungry 30-somethings are getting their fix at a Sichuan-style joint on the second floor of a newish and kind of fancy mall in Flushing, Queens, filled with clothing stores and Chinese treats. But first, off go their coats.
TANG YOUSHENG: Yeah. So there's a bin that you can put all your jacket and stuff because everything's going to smell like hot pot.
HU TING: Yeah.
TANG: It's - that's how flavorful pot is.
HU: That's why usually you wear pretty casual when you come to eat hot pot.
EBERTZ: Hu is casual in a cherry red tracksuit. Her family owned a hot pot restaurant while she was growing up, but she still cannot get enough.
HU: 'Cause whenever I go back to Sichuan, I would have hot pot almost every day, or some sort of hot pot - dry pot, hot pot, spicy pot. My family are so sick of it.
EBERTZ: Still, Hu says she's no match for Tang, who claims to have eaten hot pot almost a thousand times over the past decade, sometimes even six times in a week.
HU: See, that's why I call him the king of hot pot. Which one do you want, the black one?
TANG: I don't - no, not the black one.
HU: The white one?
TANG: Yeah. The black one's a little more chewy.
EBERTZ: Hu and Tang ponder the menu.
TANG: Can you get the goose intestine?
EBERTZ: Goose intestine sounds good, so they order it. Then they prepare the dipping sauces. Hu makes an authentic Sichuan one with garlic, scallion and sesame oil. Soon a waiter who gives his name as Tomato comes to pour the two broths in a yin-yang style pot. Others bring 20 or so plates of ingredients. We start with tripe, as Hu says is traditional for Sichuan-style hot pot. Tang tilts his head back and breathes in the broth. New York Times critic Pete Wells also loves hot pot. But he says there are so many new restaurants he's having trouble keeping track.
PETE WELLS: There was a time, I think, when you could probably have named every hot pot restaurant in New York City, but that is long gone. Like, it's just - the numbers get unwieldy.
EBERTZ: At this restaurant outside the mall in Flushing, I asked Tang about his obsession with hot pot. He's spent thousands of dollars on hot pot, visited dozens of restaurants around the world. He tells me his passion dates back to his childhood in Shanghai in the 1980s, celebrating the Lunar New Year.
TANG: Once a year for Chinese New Year's Eve, we were able to splurge on a meal, and we traditionally will have hot pot. So Chinese New Year was always something that we all looked forward to, like, a month in advance. And back then, you know, we didn't have indoor heating. So in the wintertime we all just wore jackets indoors, and we all just would sit around the table with a steaming hot pot.
EBERTZ: Literally warm memories.
TANG: Family getting together, everybody sharing from a single pot.
EBERTZ: A single pot of steaming soup filled with boundless possibilities to begin the Lunar New Year.
For NPR News, I'm Olivia Ebertz in Flushing.
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