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.
The reason for all the confusion is that the vast majority of “shabu shabu” restaurants are not owned or operated by a Japanese proprietor. What is going on is a ploy by Businesses owners to capitalize on the Japanese culture to market Chinese hot pot.I love both hot pot and shabu shabu for their differences.
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.
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.
Shabu shabu and hot pot are as distinctive as Chinese xiaolongbao is to Japanese gyoza. They are both distinctively different, and you got to appreciate the similarities and the differences, which make them both great in their own right.
Exploiting All Things Japanese (Broken Down in to Two Sections)
The lazy media to opportunistic businesses seeking to capitalize on associating or marketing their hot pot as “Japanese shabu shabu” is quite common, which is why there is so much confusion. Although to help “fight the good fight” and lessen that confusion, I will break it down into two sections on the differences.
Shabu Shabu is 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 a Leo) or what you are doing later.
Shabu Shabu reflects Japanese food culture because it focuses on the natural flavors of the ingredients (so high-end ingredients make it all that much better). Also, the meats are only “swish swished” in the broth to lightly cook it.
1. Shabu Shabu (Japanese)
- Broth (traditional): water and konbu.
- Meats: thinly cut slices of meat (primarily beef and pork) although fish and chicken are also available. Also, commonly found in shabu shabu restaurants is Japanese beef (wagyu).
- 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
- For the recipe: as always, Just One Cookbook comes through with a legit one.
Chinese hot pot has almost an unlimited amount of variation, flavors, ingredients, and sauces which is why I have spent several of my birthdays at hot pot restaurants.
2. Hot Pot (Chinese)
- Broth: several types from mild to spicy (má là to huā jiāo), from Northern to Southern styles.
- 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 the reason why P.F. Changs has that gimmicky table side-show where they mix sauces for you. I get it tho because some hot pot places have an endless amount of sauces for you to create the ultimate dipping sauce or a bukkake bucket.
Nabemono (Japanese Hot Pots)
If medium-rare to rare is not for you, Japanese nabemono just might be more to your liking because you will stew your foods all in one pot (like hot pot), with no need to swish swish.
One pot, two diners or more. Toss a bunch of ingredients into a donabe (a ceramic Japanese pot), add a dashi (soup base), a variety of ingredients from proteins to vegetables, and you got nabe. The most notorious and well known nabe is sukiyaki.The best part of sukiyaki is dipping the meat and veggies into a raw egg before eating it.
- Botan nabe (inoshishi): I didn’t know about this one till my sushi chef from Kyoto told me about it and how much he misses it. It also reminds me of the anime Princess Mononoke because botan nabe consists of wild boar, and the leader of the Boar clan is a wild boar god (nago no kami). Aside from boar, miso, burdock root, napa, tofu, renkon, to a mix of mushrooms are utilized in this dish from shiitake, himeji, to maitake.
- Chankonabe: this is the dish that is made famous because it is a favorite amongst sumo wrestlers. It also consists of everything and anything, including the kitchen sink. The bulk of the dish is primarily protein such as chicken or fish.
- 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).
Japanese Shabu Shabu Dipping Sauces
There are two traditional shabu shabu sauces typically always served with shabu shabu, and these are my favorite brands or are the most common:
Only two shabu shabu dipping sauces. One that is soy sauce with citrus (ponzu) and a thicker sauce consisting of roasted sesame seeds (gomae dare).
Goma dare (sesame sauce):
“Goma” roasted sesame sauce is made up of ground sesame (tahini) and several other ingredients that make for a perfect dipping sauce. My favorite brand is by a Japanese company called Ebara Foods (pictured below) although if you want to know all your options, I have a couple of brands to choose from.
This is one of the most common goma dare brands you and where you can buy it.
Ponzu (citrus soy sauce):
A soy sauce based sauce with a bit of citrus which you can produce on your own although I highly suggest you purchase it, especially if you are not familiar with Japanese ingredients. If you do purchase ponzu, be aware that there are several types from lemon, sudachi (the Japanese version of a lime), to yuzu (my favorite, with my favorite brand pictured below).
Umaji Mura is absolutely my favorite brand of ponzu although this is a list of the more widely available brands.
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 on a plate of meat, 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.
Legit/Authentic Japanese Shabu Shabu Restaurants in Los Angeles
If you want to try Japanese shabu shabu, when you Google “shabu shabu Los Angeles,” the places with sushi and ramen, are not your authentic Japanese shabu shabu spots.
If you ever see a Japanese restaurant, it will be strictly a sushi, ramen, or shabu shabu restaurant. Non-Japanese restaurants offer up a million-and-one dishes on their menu which makes me think “jack of all trades, master of none.” So, 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 any of the below locations (Kagaya is my favorite spot).
418 E 2nd St,
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Kagaya on Google
Shabu Shabu House
127 Japanese Village Plaza Mall
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Honorable mention (not strictly traditional):
Shin Sen Gumi Shabu Shabu
1695 Artesia Blvd
Gardena, CA 90248