The Changs Give Thanks Around a Hot Pot

By Lani Furbank, photography by Jennifer Chase

Peter Chang with his wife, Lisa, and his daughter, Lydia.

Peter Chang with his wife, Lisa, and his daughter, Lydia.

For one day each year, all of chef Peter Chang’s restaurants close for business.

“Thanksgiving Day is the day we show our staff how grateful we are for their hard work with us to build this brand,” Peter says, with his daughter, Lydia, interpreting. “Taking this day off is a great way to appreciate being in this community, being in this country, that enabled all of this to happen.”

It wasn’t always easy for the Chang family. Growing up, Peter lived an austere, rural life in the Hubei province in China. He rose through the ranks of society when he had the opportunity to attend culinary school and become a master of Sichuan cuisine while working on cruise ships, and then to cook at luxury hotels in China. In 2001, Peter moved to the U.S. to serve as the personal chef to the Chinese ambassador.

After two years at the embassy, Peter and his wife, Lisa, decided they wanted to stay in the U.S. and build a life here for their family and their teenage daughter. To do this required making a discreet exit before his contract ended. So, early one morning, Peter, Lisa and Lydia left the embassy and never returned.

The Changs spend their Thanksgiving holiday with a morning spent skiing and a family hot pot in the evening.

The Changs spend their Thanksgiving holiday with a morning spent skiing and a family hot pot in the evening.

The chef then spent years moving from restaurant to restaurant, covering his tracks whenever he turned too many heads. “The longer he stayed at a place, the less secure he felt about the safety for the family,” Lydia recalls.

During that time, celebrating Thanksgiving was put on the back burner. “Other restaurants used to be open all the time, so that wasn’t a decision made by him; it was the owners or the partners,” Lydia says. “They wanted to open for business, and that basically meant we didn’t get the chance to celebrate—we’d be working.”

As time passed and his reputation grew, Peter found the right business partner and took the risk of opening his first restaurant under his own name. Today, he and his family run a culinary empire with 11 restaurants that stretch from Stamford, Connecticut, to Virginia Beach. Still, every Thanksgiving, they give their staff the day off. “Now we can make the call,” Peter says. “The business will be closed on Thanksgiving because we want to stay with our family … we want to give everyone the day off to embrace Thanksgiving and what it means.”

Over the past several years, the Changs formed their own Thanksgiving tradition with a unique Chinese flavor: a snowy day skiing, followed by a family hot pot. It’s the first chance each season for Peter and Lydia to ski and snowboard, respectively.

Savory meats work perfectly for a hot pot, as do vegetables, seaweed, tofu, dumplings, and noodles.

Savory meats work perfectly for a hot pot, as do vegetables, seaweed, tofu, dumplings, and noodles.

“In the winter, we either work very hard because it’s the holiday season, the most busy season for restaurants, or we’ll be skiing on the mountain, which is more tiring than work. Can you imagine?” Lydia jokes.

“After a day of skiing, we’ll be exhausted. Nobody wants to spend hours and hours in the kitchen,” Lydia says. Their solution? Packing up a pot of broth and an assortment of ingredients in a cooler that comes with them.

The convivial group of family and friends comes in from the cold and gathers in the kitchen of their Vermont hotel room or rental house. With a portable burner, a pot of broth and an array of meats and vegetables, they are ready for an après-ski feast. “You don’t have to cook anything,” says Lydia. “You can just boil everything in the pot.”

Peter is a carnivore, and goes for strips of beef tenderloin dipped in the broth. Lisa, a seafood lover, cooks pieces of blue crab in the steaming pot and then extracts the meat from its shell. As the vegetarian of the family, Lydia enjoys any type of bean curd, as well as starchy items like Japanese pumpkin. In addition to all the standard ingredients that get dropped into the hot pot, the Changs add a taste of their hometown with a Hubei-style fish cake.

Peter, the Changs’ resident carnivore, adds meat to the hot pot.

Peter, the Changs’ resident carnivore, adds meat to the hot pot.

“I think the fun in the hot pot is—whether you are having it with new friends or old friends or family members—it’s about sharing, eating from one pot,” Lydia says. Hot pot, like Thanksgiving, is about bringing people together.

For Lisa and Peter, hot pot and other food celebrations are a way to keep their family heritage alive for their daughter while living an ocean away from home. “Throughout my upbringing, they’ve tried their best to connect me to our culture, to our tradition,” Lydia says. “That’s the way of doing it, by embracing this Chinese tradition at home and spending time together.”

“My dad tells me every time, ‘The main reason we stayed here is for you,’” she says. “But I think the successful business is a side perk.” When she asks her dad why he chose to stay, his answer is simple: “The pursuit of happiness. This is the greatest country.”

Embracing American traditions hasn’t erased the pride the Changs feel for their home country, but Peter explains, “Thanksgiving is about being thankful for the family. Do we feel Westernized? We would be eating a turkey if we felt that way,” he says with a grin.


How to Make Your Own Hot Pot Happen

Start with a Rich Broth

The foundation for a great hot pot is the broth, which can take hours. The Changs’ chili oil broth recipe involves a triple chicken stock and lots of heat. Don’t skimp on the time it takes for the chicken stock to reduce.

You can also make a milder broth like mushroom or tomato and have them both boiling simultaneously using a pot that has a divider in the center.


Gather the Ingredients You Like

The beauty of hot pot is that it can be customized to suit your tastes. “When you think of it, it’s not just one dish, it’s the dish that could change into so many forms,” Lydia says. Their skiing group simply stops by the nearest supermarket and grabs whatever they find. “The only thing I would never put in a hot pot is cheese. Everything else is fine,” she adds.


Get the Guests Involved

With the broth made in advance, Lydia says you can have the hot pot ready to enjoy in under 30 minutes with the help of many sous chefs. “If you have a group of 20 people and everyone takes charge of one [ingredient], you can be done in, like, 10 minutes. Everyone is working on something and you enjoy your work.”

Once all the ingredients have been chopped and sliced, they go into the hot pot raw and unseasoned, and the boiling broth does all the work for you.


Use Tools That Will Get the Job Done

All you really need to pull this off is a portable burner, a heatproof bowl or pot and chopsticks. Don’t worry too much about the equipment. Lydia says you can get a gas or induction burner from an Asian supermarket or on Amazon. (Just don’t use a chafing-dish fuel can, as it likely won’t be able to bring the broth to a boil.) “It’s not about procedure. It’s not a ceremony,” Lydia says. “At end of the day, it’s food. It’s how you want to enjoy.”


Pay Attention to Cooking Times

After the broth is at a full boil, each ingredient only needs to stay submerged for a short period of time. “You have to be fast with that,” Lydia says. “You don’t want to overcook it; you don’t want to undercook it.”

There are general rules for the length of time each item should cook, but Lydia says that “the best way to test it is to use your chopsticks. Take it out to see the color; to feel the texture.” It should be firm, but not falling apart.

“The key to making a successful hot pot is not to put everything in and make it a swimming pool of ingredients,” she adds. Cook a few ingredients at a time and monitor how long they are in the broth.

Lydia shared a few guidelines for specific ingredients:

Meat: 30 seconds to 1 minute
Seafood: once it begins to turn color but before it becomes too tough
Mushrooms and seaweed: soak for as long as you’d like
Starchy vegetables: 1 to 2 minutes, but not so long that they dissolve in the broth
Firm tofu: 3 to 4 minutes, enough time for it to absorb the flavor (soft tofu is not ideal for hot pot)
Dumplings and noodles: pre-cook or soak these items and then dip them for 15 to 30 seconds so they can pick up flavor from the broth


Fight for Your Food

Lydia says eating hot pot with a large group can be like war. “You have to fight for the things you put in, but that’s where the fun is. You have to act fast. If you are on your phone for too long or if you are getting away with chatting, then forget about the meal,” she says with a laugh.


Spend Quality Time Together

Eating hot pot is a long process. Lydia says her family is known to spend at least an hour or two at the table, cooking and eating the ingredients. “You are there to enjoy, you are not cooking everything and finishing it at once.”

Gradually cooking and eating is an ideal meal for Peter. “For Chinese people, we love to eat food super hot,” he says.

Beware: Over the course of the meal, the broth will begin to cook away and reduce. Lydia says you can either add hot water or add a clear broth to keep the flavor from being diluted.


Hot Pot 火锅

Serves 4–6 

Chili Oil Broth

1 cup red chili oil

4 cups dry chili pepper

5 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorn seed

5 tablespoons finely chopped ginger

5 tablespoons finely chopped garlic

5 tablespoons fermented black beans

1 cup Pi’xian bean paste 

10 cups chicken stock

3 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorn oil

1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorn powder

3 tablespoons sugar

Heat a 3- to 4-quart saucepan until hot, add red chili oil, dry chili pepper, Sichuan peppercorn seed, ginger, garlic, fermented black beans and bean paste.

Stir-fry evenly on medium heat for about 10 minutes. 

Pour in chicken stock. Over medium to low heat, cook for another 15 minutes. Drop the Sichuan peppercorn oil, powder and sugar into the boiling pot for 3 more minutes. 

Move the pot to a portable gas burner and let the liquid come to a boil. You are now ready to hot pot!


There is no shortage of potential ingredients to use for your next hot pot; see the list below for inspiration.

There is no shortage of potential ingredients to use for your next hot pot; see the list below for inspiration.

Suggested ingredients (pictured): 


Vermicelli noodles

Pork belly

Sliced beef tenderloin

Beef meatballs (seasoned with soy sauce, mushroom powder, salt)




Chinese yam, thinly sliced

Japanese pumpkin, thinly sliced

Beech mushrooms

Wood ear mushrooms

Broccoli, broken into florets

Pea shoots

Firm tofu, in thick slices

Bean curd skin

Liberian Christmas Breakfast

by Helene Cooper

There are three Christmas traditions my Liberian family lives by.  

Tradition 1: A few nights before Christmas, we do an Ikea meatball and Red Rooster party for the neighbors at my house. It is beautifully low-rent: I drive to the Ikea to buy seven or so bags of frozen meatballs, with the lingonberry jam and the powdered cream sauce.  

On party night, I serve them on platters accompanied by giant pots of mashed potatoes, all washed down lovingly with Red Rooster frozen vodka-cranberry juice-orange juice concentrate slushies. 

Tradition 2: Christmas dinner will not include turkey. Because really, who wants to eat turkey, ever?  

Tradition 3 concerns Christmas breakfast, when my mom makes cassava with smoked fish gravy and Spam. 

Growing up on the Atlantic Ocean in Monrovia, just north of the equator, tropical vegetables and fresh fish were staples of life, and cassava—sometimes called yucca here—was on the table for all special-occasion breakfasts. The cassava is peeled and then boiled in water for 20 minutes or so until it’s soft, and served with a spicy, habanero-pepper-infused fish stew.  

Liberians who couldn’t afford or find fresh fish simply substituted Spam as the main star of the stew, and then added smoked fish fillets, as ubiquitous in Liberia as bouillon cubes, to give the transformed Spam stew its necessary fish flavor.  

Indeed, Liberians flavor everything with fish. We use it as a seasoning, in all of our tropical stews, or just with “dry rice” and palm oil. My American sister-in-law never could understand that—the same way it’s hard for me to understand when my friends in Washington say they don’t want fish that taste fishy. 

Let’s now discuss Spam. In Liberia, like in Hawaii, Spam rules. We eat it with plantains, we put it in potato salad and, most especially, we eat it with cassava. 

My earliest memory of cassava and smoked fish gravy with Spam breakfast stems from 1973, the first Christmas my family had at our new house at Sugar Beach. I was 7 and fresh with terror over the “Santa Claus Weah”—a traditional Liberian country devil on stilts who had shown up at our house the night before to dance for money. But now it was Christmas morning, and the only thing standing between me and my Christmas bounty was my parents’ rule: no opening presents before breakfast. 

My siblings and I ate our cassava and smoked fish gravy with Spam on plates on our laps, excitedly chattering about the packages around the tree. My brother wanted a Polaroid camera; I wanted sunglasses.  

When my family fled Liberia for America after a military coup, we kept our Christmas breakfast tradition. It was hard to find cassava at first in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Greensboro, North Carolina, so my parents substituted potatoes. That’s where the Spam really showed its true worth, because even when it was hard to find smoked fish, it was easy to find Spam at the local Kroger. I don’t know what my parents did, but somehow they managed to extract the fishy flavor even when we didn’t have smoked fish. 

These days, African grocery stores are all over Washington, and you can find cassava and smoked fish right at my local Shoppers Food Warehouse on Route 1 in Alexandria. Since I’m in charge of Christmas dinner, my sister and mom make our Christmas breakfast. The night before Christmas, my sister Marlene takes my mom the ingredients, and she makes the smoked fish gravy with Spam at her condo. The next morning, my Serbian brother-in-law, Aleks, picks up my mom, her Christmas presents and our smoked fish gravy with Spam and brings the whole lot to Marlene and Aleks’ house for Christmas breakfast and present-opening. 

The Serbs—Aleks’ brother Dragan, his wife Lilly, his cousins Vlado and Marina, and their children—have become completely used to eating cassava for Christmas breakfast now. These days Marlene makes eggs and bacon on the side, but it’s the cassava and smoked fish gravy with Spam that disappears the fastest. I love the idea that my Liberian-Serbian-American nephew, Cooper, is growing up with the same flavors in his mouth at Christmas that I did. 

We still stick to the “no presents until breakfast” rule too, and Cooper and his cousins Jovana and Maca are, of course, DYING to get through breakfast so they can open up their gifts.  

Which they can’t do until after their cassava, smoked fish gravy and Spam.  

Just as it should be. 

This Christmas, for the first time since we ran away from Liberia after the coup, my entire family is going home for Christmas.   

We’re not sure yet where we will be for Christmas dinner—we will figure that out later. I recently called my sister Eunice, who lives there, to suggest we all go to Libassa, a popular seaside resort, for Christmas dinner. 

“That’s cool,” she said. “But you know those people won’t have cassava there oh.” 

 I said nothing, letting the silence stretch. 

 Eunice started laughing. “So we will have breakfast here at my house first!” she said. 

 “Well, duh,” I said. 

I can’t wait. A real live cassava, smoked fish gravy and Spam breakfast this year, right where it all started.