You're Eating It Wrong: Shabu-Shabu

By Megan O. Steintrager  |  August 4, 2014
Credit: Drew Dawson

Cook-your-own meals like fondue, Korean barbecue, and Japanese shabu-shabu can be super fun — or kind of stressful (wondering whether you're going to give yourself trichinosis from undercooked pork can really put a damper on dinner). Shabu-shabu — in which you cook a variety of meats and vegetables in a simmering broth set over a burner on your table — is a simple enough concept, but there are still plenty of opportunities to do it wrong, from the moment the broth arrives to the last morsel. If you muck up your meal, there’s no sending it back to the kitchen — you'll only have yourself to blame. Sean Kaywood, who traveled around Japan learning about shabu-shabu before opening his Seattle hot-pot restaurant Roaring Bowl, has seen customers do a lot of crazy things since the restaurant opened earlier this year. Learn from their mistakes, below, before you sit down to your next shabu session.

Simmer Down

After you order at a shabu-shabu restaurant, the first thing to arrive is a pot of broth, which will be placed on a burner on your table and brought to a boil. This is not your soup course. "I have people who drink their broth before they even get their food in there, and then they ask for more broth," says Kaywood. "I am not going to call them out on it. I am happy that they like the broth. It's better than them not liking it." True, but still a no-no. Once the broth reaches a boil, your server (or you) should lower it to a simmer before beginning to cook your meat and vegetables in it — as Kaywood explains, while Chinese hot pot is often kept at a rolling boil, shabu-shabu broth should stay at a simmer. "We have induction burners in the table and we will see people crank it up to 20," says Kaywood. "They think that's how it's supposed to be done, but they are really just killing the meat and vegetables." And with the kurobuta pork, Wagyu beef, in-season vegetables and the like served at Roaring Bowl, that's a real shame. As your broth simmers away throughout the meal, your server may refill your pot once or twice with plain boiling water rather than adding additional seasoned broth. "That really upsets a lot of people because they feel like we are being cheap," Kaywood says. "But only water evaporates, and everything else is staying in the pot condensing, so if we poured in more broth it would change the taste and the balance of the seasonings in the broth."

Swish Smartly

Traditional Chinese hot pot generally comes already loaded with meat, seafood, and vegetables, but with shabu-shabu you'll be given plates of meat, vegetables and other items (dumplings and udon, for example) to cook in the broth. While Roaring Bowl provides tongs — and extra chopsticks, if you ask — it's traditional to use the same set of chopsticks for cooking and eating. Kaywood says he's never seen anyone in Japan use tongs, and adds that the fact that the broth is near-boiling should allay food-safety fears. Noting that shabu-shabu translates to swish-swish, Kaywood says to pick up one piece of meat with your chopsticks, then "swish it in the broth and it should be cooked." (You can let go of the piece of meat, but only briefly — 10 seconds should do it.) Because shabu-shabu meat is sliced so thinly, Kaywood says that overcooking is a much bigger risk than undercooking.  "Some people come in and we tell them to put just one piece of meat in at a time," he says. "And I don't know if they are overwhelmed or what, but they will dump the vegetables and the meat in all at the same time. And the meat gets completely overcooked and boiled to death."

Vegetables, on the other hand, need anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, so you can release those into the pot. Roaring Bowl's servers give customers general guidelines for cooking vegetables and other items (three minutes for bok choy, carrots, and napa cabbage, a few seconds for udon), but he says it's really a matter of personal taste and trial and error. (The exception at Roaring Bowl is dumplings, which have a raw filling and must be cooked at least five minutes — and, yes, they give you a timer.)

Sauce Wisely

Roaring Bowl offers two dipping sauces: ponzu-citrus-soy, which is traditionally used for vegetables, and creamy sesame, which is traditionally used for meat. As you remove each piece of meat or vegetable from the broth, you dip it in its appropriate sauce and then put the item on your rice until you have a nice collection to eat. Customers land on opposite ends of the mess-up spectrum with this one: "They'll completely skip the dipping sauces or they will dump all the dipping sauce on top of everything in the rice bowl." The first mistake has you missing out on a major source of flavor, while the second creates a muddy mixture. A self-proclaimed sesame-head, Kaywood has been known to dip vegetables in sesame sauce, he doesn't advise mixing the two sauces by putting one item into both sauces — the citrusy flavors of the ponzu and the creamy sesame clash.

Relish Your Rice

Another common shabu mistake Kaywood has noticed is people thinking their bowl of rice is simply a side. "They will ask for a separate plate to put their shabu on, but the rice is there to rest the shabu on and absorb the juices," he explains. "The meat is still kind of dripping from the dipping sauce — the rice absorbs all of that flavor and it makes it really tasty." So eat your rice throughout your meal, reloading it with vegetables and meat from time to time, and repeat until all of the meat and veg are gone, then start drinking the broth with your rice.

Eat Up!

Kaywood, who was actually turned away from shabu-shubu restaurants in Japan because he was traveling solo and it's generally a family-style meal, notes: "You can't waste food there — that is culturally offensive, so you should always finish your meal."