Shabu Shabu is the New Sushi
One of the best things about food is how it brings us together. We share an experience when we share a meal that can never be re-created and is inherently ephemeral. Same meal, same guests, different day = different result. Luckily, each meal has the potential to delight us in new ways. This is the power of food.
Now imagine sharing a meal that is scrumptious, interactive and fun, completely customized to each diner’s liking, and healthy, too. It’s a cold winter day and you’re sharing this meal around a steaming hot pot in the center of the table. Now, throw in a little sake or a beer, and if this isn’t heaven, it’s darn close.
Shabu shabu allows diners to laugh and share and drink and cook and eat all together over the course of a leisurely meal. Largely unknown until recently, it is a Japanese cuisine that is gaining in popularity. People introduced to the cuisine of Japan through sushi, have begun to explore what other traditions Japanese cuisine has to offer. This nabemono, or one pot meal, couldn’t be more perfect for the type of magic that happens over a shared meal.
The name “Shabu Shabu” is said to come from the swishing sound of the meat being dragged through the bubbling broth. Onomatopoeia never tasted so good. The cooking style is thought to have been developed by Genghis Khan and introduced to Asia through his military campaigns.
The components of the meal are simple: meat and/or vegetables, broth, and dipping sauce. Accompaniments usually include rice or noodles and plenty of sake or beer. Did I mention how fun and convivial a shabu shabu meal is?
Once the order is in, the pots of broth are placed on burners in the middle of specially designed tables. Platters of extra-thin sliced meat and vegetables begin arriving. Diners cook their own items in a shared pot of bubbling broth.
Traditionally, Japanese Shabu Shabu centered on very thin sliced beef and an array of vegetables. These days, most Shabu Shabu menus will include a large number of items which can be ordered a la carte. Rib eye, pork, chicken, prawns, clams, fish, even Ostrich may be offered. Dumplings may also be cooked in the broth and little meatballs of various combinations are common.
In my favorite restaurant version, diners have a choice of about 6 different broths from Thai Tom Yum, Spicy Szechwan, Korean Kim chi, to Chinese Herbal. Milder broths are also available and might be compared to what would accompany a bowl of ramen. The simplest can be water seasoned with kombu (one of the essential ingredients in dashi – the all purpose Japanese soup stock.)
Vegetables (napa cabbage – always better in winter, watercress, spinach are favorites) and many varieties of tofu can go in later, with each subsequent item lending its flavor to the broth. By the end of the meal, there’s a delicious soup with layers of flavor.
Rice is the traditional accompaniment, but most places offer noodles, such as mung bean noodles, or udon both of which are toothsome and cook very quickly in the broth.
Watching the broth begin to simmer whets the appetite. As the food begins to arrive, immediately people begin passing trays to each other, “Try this!” “Have some of the short-ribs!” “Did you try the prawns yet?” “Oooo, pass me the dumplings, please?”
As each item is swished through the broth, chopsticks or a little strainer are used to remove the tasty morsels from the broth to a dipping sauce. Most often these sauces are combined by each diner to his or her own preference and include additions to a soy sauce base such as: hot pepper or chili sauce; garlic, sesame oil, scallions.
In a home cooked Chinese hot pot meal it’s not uncommon to break an egg into the dipping sauce bowl. This makes for a really unctuous, richer dipping sauce. Our Auntie Anne prepares a hot pot meal for us every visit home. One of her tips is to cook the oil for the dipping sauce prior to the meal. As any chef worth her salt will tell you, this extra step is worth the effort as it deepens and softens the flavor of the oil.
On top of the warm, gregarious feelings that fill the room and I’m convinced, aid digestion, there are health benefits to this type of meal too. For one, you can select exactly what you’d like eat. The meats are typically very lean and must be of the highest quality. Seafood is perfect for this quick cooking method. All the cooking is done in broth not oil. There are no heavy sauces.
Nutritionists tell us to slow down our eating to reduce our intake. Our brains don’t register satiety for a full 20 minutes after we’ve eaten. The natural pacing of a shabu shabu meal allows for a healthier pace of eating. We may well end up eating less we might if the whole meal arrived at once. Okay, it’s a theory anyway.
Now get out there and find a shabu shabu restaurant and tell me your favorite finds!