Across Asia, hotpot is having its moment in the limelight. In Chongqing, diners dip chunks of congealed duck blood into bubbling red Sichuan mala broth; in Beijing, robots at the Haidilao hotpot chain's flagship restaurant seamlessly deliver plates of thinly-sliced beef to your table; and in Singapore, diners can choose between enriching their broth by dunking a teddy bear made of butter, or undressing a Barbie doll swathed in a dress made of meat, in the style of Lady Gaga.
With its infinite customisability—requiring only the constants of raw morsels cooked family-style in a vat of broth—you would be forgiven for believing that hotpot was a relatively recent invention, perhaps ideated by some savvy Taiwanese restaurateur in the 1970s (as was the case with General Tso's chicken).
The humble hotpot, however, has a history that dates back hundreds of years, with roots that stretch back thousands more. Copper pots that were likely used to cook food in a manner similar to hotpot have been unearthed in northern China, dating back to the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD); although we can thank the Mongols, who invaded China in the 13th century and established the Yuan dynasty, for creating what we recognise today as hotpot.
Legend has it that the Mongol horsemen would boil broth in their helmets over an open fire in which they would cook chunks of meat; another tells of an emperor who demanded a meal of lamb leg before a battle—in an effort to make the tight deadline, the emperor's cook chopped up the meat and boiled it in a pot, leading to the first instance of a hotpot meal.
That hotpot is a Mongolian invention is certainly plausible, given its ease of preparation and the important ability to provide a filling meal for a small huddle of tired warriors without much in the way of cooking skills—indeed, where hotpot used their helmets as a cooking implement, the shields of these horsemen were also used to sear meat, a technique that subsequently inspired a grilled mutton dish found in modern Hokkaido that is cooked using a convex metal plate, and simply named the Genghis Khan.
In the following centuries, dignitaries from the Ming and Qing dynasties [from the late 14th century to early 20th century] were known to indulge in the gastronomic pleasures of hotpot too, and as the cuisine migrated into southern China, it localised and adapted to the distinct palates and available ingredients of the respective regions.