Terrace House: Opening New Doors began its saga with a dish. The six cast members meet each other for the first time in their new house, forested away in the sleepy Nagano prefecture, and decide on hot pot for their introductory meal together. They shop for ingredients—enoki mushrooms, daikon, tofu—at the local grocery store and learn about each other’s type-u’s (their dating types) over bubbling broth. Steam has a way of making people comfortable, loosening up their more indiscreet tendencies.
Hot pot also serves as a harbinger for the season. Ami, a 21-year-old aspiring model, complains about Taka’s choice of a mizutaki hot pot—a milder flavor than she wished for. She and her group of friends comment later that Taka, a 31-year old professional snowboarder, was being a “hot pot sergeant.” Taka spends much of the rest of the season chasing after Ami, infamously shaving his facial hair to look younger for her. But he should have known the relationship was doomed from the start. If you can’t share a hot pot together, you can’t share, well, anything. As one of the show’s commentators Yamasoto points out, “Mizutaki is not a dish to get upset over.”
As the crisp air rolls in, Netflix has conveniently released a new edition of Terrace House, the politely dramatic Japanese reality TV dating show where members live in a house together, expressly to find love. It’s a blessing, but more importantly it’s a reminder: Hot Girl Summer is over, and hot pot season is back. We’re sticking wire nets into broth and fishing out grubby mushrooms. Delicious.
Hot pot has many iterations, but its essentials consist of a stout pot squatting on a burner in the middle of the table. The pot is the centerpiece, but its surroundings—buttery, thinly-sliced cuts of meat, plates overflowing with trailing green vegetables, fish balls—are the main event. Diners cook the meal together, usually sharing a single pot. As Karissa Chen wrote at Eater, hot pot implies a sense of “intimacy and egalitarianism.” Everyone cooks the meal, which means everyone eats what everyone else cooks.
While I’ve been eating hot pot meals my entire life, the one thing I know about hot pot is that I don’t know very much about hot pot. Not only are there national varieties—from Japan, Vietnam, Mongolia, China, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, and more—there are also regional and functional ones; from Sichuan ma la hot pot, known for its numbing red spice, to Japan’s chankonabe, a hearty hot pot that was consumed by sumo wrestlers looking to bulk up. To fully understand hot pot is a Herculean task, and I am but one lazy diner.
What I do know is that hot pot is not the most glamorous of foods (that distinction obviously belongs to spaghetti bolognese), nor is it necessarily the tastiest, like fried chicken. But if anything, hot pot is adaptable—to one’s palate, as well as one’s current social and emotional needs. While summer is about social excess, fall is about transitioning into social intimacy. (Winter, too is hot pot season—one can only satisfy their hot pot needs over the course of half a year.) Whether you’re looking to connect with family, friends, loved ones, or new acquaintances, hot pot is there to facilitate.
My friend Estelle and I developed a tradition of throwing a hot pot viewing party when Terrace House episodes drop. It’s an excuse to bring disparate groups of people together, and it also gives us some intimate time beforehand to prepare the dish. What an easy meal, I’ll insist to myself as we spend an hour in Chinatown’s Hong Kong supermarket buying ingredients. I sweat as I shove past older Chinese ladies who are yelling at me as I reach for a bag of chrysanthemum leaves. “WHAT AN EASY MEAL!” I shout to Estelle across the packed store. “STAY THERE, I’LL COME TO WHERE YOU ARE.”
Hot pot can also serve as a soothing welcome. Last fall, when I was the only off-season guest staying in a hostel in the middle of the woods on the far side of Yakushima, a small island off the southern coast of Japan, I irrationally thought I was going to get murdered. This was because I had just read my friend Katie’s Halloween blog summarizing Wikipedia summaries of horror movies (still too scary for me). But that night, the owners of the hostel invited me to eat homemade nabe with them, filling a hot pot with vegetables boiled over a charcoal pit, and my fears were instantly settled.
The experience of hot pot season differs by individual, but the pinnacle of mine culminates in Lunar New Year, when my aunt throws a 50-person hot pot dinner. This event occupies three full rooms of her house and consists of at least 10 individual pots—opulence presented in its most natural form: broth. All of my extended family arrives early in the day, some flying from across the country, to start prepping. My job every year is militantly mushroom-focused—washing, cutting, and sorting plate after plate of mushroom varieties. When we finally sit down to eat, we get a chance to talk (yell) to each other and share ours and each other’s secrets. (Hot pot is a gossip’s dish.) Even in the dead of winter, the porch door is thrown wide open in the middle of dinner to let out the steam that has built up in the house and fogged up the windows. It’s a collective sigh into a new year, whatever scandals we’ve had already forgotten as the pots are brought down to a simmer.