Big in Japan: Swish-Swish Goes the Shabu-Shabu

In one of the pivotal scenes in the movie Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray’s characters get together for a lunch that is wrought with sexual tension. While staring blankly at plates of raw meat, and reminiscing about the previous night’s indiscretions, Murray wryly comments, ‘What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?’

The answer Bill is simple: shabu-shabu (????????????).

The Japanese onomatopoeic sound for ‘swish-swish,’ shabu-shabu is a type of Japanese hot pot involving plates of thinly sliced raw meat and pots of boiling broth.

Needless to say, the potential for either ingesting uncooked meat or burning your hands beyond recognition are two of the pivotal reasons why shabu-shabu hasn’t caught on outside Japan.

Truth be told, there are a few places in America where you can indulge in this Japanese delicacy (albeit in a closely watched manner), especially in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles and in Chinatown in New York.

Of course, nothing quite equals the actual thing.

Traditionally, shabu-shabu focused on thin slices of raw Japanese beef, though these days Australian beef and increasingly American beef is popping up on the menus. Needless to say, I’m partial to the Kobe variety, but since I’m not rolling in the yen, I’m happy to settle for the cheaper, less marbled meat.

Shabu-shabu is usually served with blocks of hard tofu and a healthy smattering of vegetables. Although these vary depending on the restaurant, the staples are Chinese cabbage, mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves, seaweed, onions and carrots. It’s also fairly common to be served a side of udon noodles, which are excellent for soaking up the broth and providing a bit of carbs to the feast.

Here comes the fun part!

With your chopsticks in hand, pick up a single slice of meat, and swish it (or better yet shabu it!) around the broth for a few seconds. Depending on the quality of the meat, you’re going to want to leave the middle pink if it’s Kobe, or cook the hell out of it if it’s of unknown origin.

Next, dip the meat in one of the accompanying sauces, which are usually either ponzu (ぽんず), a sweet, citrus sauce, or goma (ごま), a creamy, sesame sauce.

Now that you’ve got the hang of it, you’re going to want to spice up the broth a bit. Although the broth is made by boiling dashi (だし) or flaked bonito, get creative by tossing in a plate of vegetables, tofu and noodles. After a few minutes, the broth will darken in color and thicken in texture, which will make the beef taste even more delicious.

Finally, once all the meat, vegetables and noodles have been eaten, the broth from the pot is customarily combined with a few bowls of rice. After all, you wouldn’t want to waste any food, now would you?

** Special thanks to my fellow restaurant goers, ‘Bakka-sugi’ Will and ‘I’m too cute’ Maho-san ***