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 because shabu shabu is all about rare to medium rare.
Also count yourself in as a shabu shabu over hot pot 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.
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 reason for all the confusion is because the vast majority of “shabu shabu” restaurants are not owned or operated by Japanese. Businesses are often times marketed as Japanese, but majority of the time it is Chinese hot pot.
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.
Exploiting All Things Japanese (Broken Down in to Three Sections)
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.
Many non-Japanese owned or operated businesses will play off of being Japanese, but the vast majority of the time what you are eating is Chinese hot pot. If you would like to know the difference between to the two dishes, I got you homie (read on):
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
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.
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 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).
Japanese Shabu Shabu Dipping Sauces
There are two tradtional shabu shabu sauces typically always served with shabu shabu, and these are my favorite brands or are the most common:
Goma dare (sesame sauce):
Ponzu (citrus soy sauce):
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.
Japanese Shabu Shabu Restaurants in Los Angeles
If you do not have the ability to make it out to Japan, and you live in Southern California, you can try authentic shabu shabu at Kagaya in Little Tokyo (my favorite spot).
418 E 2nd St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Shabu Shabu House
127 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Honorable mentions (not strictly traditional):
Shin Sen Gumi Shabu Shabu