Everything in a Hot Pot is Not “Shabu Shabu”

If you like to toss all your meat into a hot pot to have it chillax in it like it was you in a bikini or Speedo® clad, do not call it shabu shabu

Although count yourself in as a shabu shabu type, if you like natural flavors, rare to medium rare meat, minimal sauces (two), and you love a variety of vegetables. If that is you, you are in the shabu shabu camp, welcome.

That might look like just plain water, but it has konbu in it. The konbu helps bring out the natural flavors in it, so if you are Asian, and if you were to sit in it, I think that is where the instant ramen flavor “oriental” comes from. This epic image is by Jim G.

I love Chinese hot pot, Japanese shabu shabu, and most things served in pots

I have spent a number of my birthdays at Chinese hot pot restaurants such as the one owned by Taco Bell (yea seriously, Taco Bell). Yum! Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell acquired Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot back in 2011. The chain of inner Mongolian hot pot restaurants is my go to spot in Orange County (Irvine), but when it comes to shabu shabu, I stick to doing it myself at home.

The meat should only be going for a quick dip because it is not a 68-year-old dude in a Speedo® wanting to unwind in a hot tub for a half-hour. Image by Christian Kadluba used under CC.

So what is “shabu shabu/しゃぶしゃぶ”

First of all, a large or YUGE percentage of things in Japan has come from China, so if you see the similarities with hot pot, you’re right about that although over the centuries these dishes/foods have become uniquely Japanese.

Highly marbled wagyu is perfect for a quick dip. Image by Nekotank

Exploiting all things Japanese

The lazy media to opportunistic businesses seeking to capitalize on associating or marketing their hot pot as “Japanese shabu shabu” is very common which is why there is so much confusion. Although to help fight the good fight and to lessen that confusion, I will break it down into three sections on the differences.

A quick “swish swish” is all you need when cooking the meat. Image by Nishimuraya Kinosaki Onsen (hot springs).

1. When shabu shabu is shabu shabu (Japanese)

  • Broth (traditional): water and konbu.
  • Other broth variations: miso and soy sauce based versions.
  • Meats: thinly cut slices of meat (primarily beef and pork) although fish and chicken are also available.
  • Additional ingredients: traditional types of vegetables and ingredients include shungiku, napa, enoki, shiitake, spinach, tofu, green onion, carrots (more decorative).
  • Sauces: Two types of dipping sauces: goma dare and ponzu

2. When hot pot is hot pot (Chinese)

  • Broth: several types from mild to spicy (má là to huā jiāo)
  • Meats: beef, fish fillet, lamb shoulder, pork, seafood such as shrimp balls, scallops, prawns, and more.
  • Ingredients: everything you can think of! Some of those ingredients are enoki mushrooms, pea sprouts, oyster mushrooms, potato, noodles of all types, tofu, tong ho, spinach, napa cabbage, bok choy, and a lot more.
  • Sauces: this is when your results may vary because most hot pot restaurants require you to mix your own sauces, so for those of you who don’t cook, this might be a challenge. It’s probably this reason why P.F. Changs has that gimmicky table side-show where they mix sauces for you, but I get it because some hot places have an endless amount of sauces for you to create the ultimate dipping sauce.
How could you not love hot pot, and if you have never had it, you have to go get some.

3. There are hot pots (Chinese) and then there are nabemono (Japanese hot pots)

  • Chankonabe: this is the dish that is made famous because it is a favorite amongst sumo wrestlers.
  • Torinabe: I have always tried to reproduce the one I had in Tokyo, but I have not been able to do that. When it is done right, it seems greater than a simple pot of chicken, napa cabbage, tofu, mushrooms, and veggies in a chicken broth.
  • Motsunabe: throughout the world people have been eating and still eat intestines. In Japan, beef intestines are typically stewed in a pot with a soup base of lite soy sauce with cabbage, garlic, and chives which is another one of my favorites to cook or to go out for at an izakaya (pictured above).
  • Sukiyaki: if you got a thing for soy sauce, a little sweetness, a little fattyness, this is the one for you although it’s the raw egg that you dip your food into that will expose you to something you never knew you needed in your life.
  • Nabeyaki udon: thick white wheat noodles (udon) served with a number of ingredients from tempura shrimp, veggies, and fish cake all topped with an egg in a soy and fish based stock (why is everything better with a sunny side up egg…well, not ice cream).
A pic of motsunabe (a nabemono) which I like to have cooked (the longer the better).

A reflection of Japanese culture

  • The Japanese way: love the natural tastes of food. There is no need for a ton of sauces or additional flavors to smother the taste of quality ingredients. The konbu in shabu shabu and the meat itself contain glutamates. These glutamates are what brings out the flavors of the ingredients which would be called umami or “savory.”
  • Omotenashi: the service is always a telltale sign of a Japanese restaurant because it is always professional, friendly, and quick although don’t expect it to be too personable because they got a job to do which doesn’t involve finding out your astrological sign (btw, I’m Leo).
Out of the million times I have eaten shabu shabu, I still don’t have a pic of it cooked although this one will do. I just tend to cook it even more rare than this. Image by City Foodsters (they have a lot of amazing shots).
The shabu shabu spread consists of meats, veggies, noodles, and tofu (beer too if you’re me). Image by Christian Kadluba used under CC.

How not to eff up eating shabu shabu

If somebody tries to tell you that there is no wrong way or right way to eat shabu shabu, proceed to eat your hamburger bun first, meat last, all while dipping the lettuce, tomato and pickles in either dipping sauce of ketchup or mustard using a knife and fork.

“…If you see a red liquid, that is not blood. It’s a protein from the muscle/meat which is called myoglobin.”

  • The ideal way: “Shabu shabu” is an onomatopoeia which translates to “swish swish” because the thin cuts of beef are “swished” around in the konbu broth to lightly cook the meat. If you don’t like rare to medium rare, you need to stick with beef stews made of cheap cuts.
  • The sad way: to grab the complete plate of ingredients and dump it completely into the konbu broth till it cooks the meat till it’s grey in color, dry, and chewy pieces of meat.

In Japan, it’s not the size of your meat, but the quality of it which is why you will often find marbled cuts of wagyu that won’t require you to have teeth. You can almost get away with only using your gums because the meat is that tender and soft.

One does not just survive on beef alone, and you should always be able to dabble in all types of meats like pork.

If you do not have the ability to make it out to Japan, but you live in Southern California, you can try authentic shabu shabu at Kagaya in Little Tokyo.


418 E 2nd St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 617-10165
Tues-Fri: 6pm-10:30pm Sat: 5:30-10:30pm, Sun: 5:30-10pm, Mon: Closed

Shabu Shabu House

127 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 680-3890
Tues-Fri: 12-2pm, 5:30-9pm, Sat: 5-9pm, Sun-Mon: Closed

Honorable mentions (not strictly traditional):

Shin Sen Gumi Shabu Shabu

1695 Artesia Blvd, Gardena, CA 90248
(310) 532-0728
Mon-Fri: 11:30-2pm, 6-11pm, Sat-Sun: 11:30-11pm

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