I may have mentioned it before during reviews of shabu shabu restaurants: shabu shabu is the one restaurant dish that anyone can replicate at home and lose almost nothing in the translation. Speaking of "translation", remember the scene in Lost in Translation
when Bill Murray says to Scarlett Johansson, “What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?”
Anyway. I digress. What follows is meant to be an informational essay for anyone who might want to try shabu shabu at home. If you count a goma grinder among your kitchen essentials, you need not read this. You're already an expert.
But first this note: just because we are capable of making shabu shabu at home doesn’t mean that we’ve sworn off patronizing shabu shabu restaurants. We don’t speak in such absolutes. Still, it is
significantly cheaper...even if you splurge on the Kobe cuts of meat. But more importantly, shabu shabu, because it’s so interactive, is actually the ideal dinner party food.
You do, however, have to get over the hurdle of start-up costs. There are exactly two pieces of equipment that are required. The first is an induction stove. There are options other than induction. You could use Sterno or even a camp stove, for example. We would still recommend an induction. It’s safer and isn’t that much more in cost. Our local Costco recently had a sale on induction stoves for $49.99, which is a bargain when you consider other models can go upwards to $200.
If you do buy an induction stove, the second piece of equipment you'll need is a stainless steel shabu shabu pot. Those aluminum pots you have at home won’t work on an induction burner. And most pots in a typical kitchen are too deep for shabu shabu. A shabu shabu pot needs to be shallow enough that you can lower your chopstick into it without scalding or singeing your hand. You can buy a shabu shabu pot from Amazon, but you’ll probably find the same brands for much cheaper at your local Chinese super market. 99 Ranch, our local Chinese grocer, had the one we now use on sale for $10. Skimmers and ladles are also nice to have, because there will be scum to skim and items that will be too slippery for chopsticks. Put them in a bowl of water next to the pots.
After the hardware, the next thing you must consider are the ingredients. And if there's one rule, it's that there are no rules. There’s no right or wrong thing to put in shabu shabu. And there’s no technique involved except cutting a few ingredients up into bite-sized pieces. Again, what those ingredients are, is totally up to you. For us, it’s often what’s on sale at the local Asian grocery (in our case, HMart).
Do pay attention to presentation, however. You could do family style, putting the things you’re going to boil in a big communal tray or in sharable saucers; but we like to individualize the plates to highlight the array of ingredients we’ve chosen. If you decide to do it this way, arrange the items with contrasting colors in mind.
Imitation crab adds a splash of red. A green onion stalk laid atop something monochromatic like tofu can make it pop. If you do napa cabbage for your main vegetable (it's cheap and it cooks quickly), consider placing the greener leaves on top to highlight its color. We also find that oyster mushrooms work extremely well. Fish cakes and fish balls we add because, well, because we like them almost as much as the meat.
And finally, there’s protein--which I suppose is the whole point of shabu shabu. But even here, it’s up to you. Pork, chicken, beef, lamb, they all work well so long as it’s sliced wafer thin. When picking out your meat (Korean or Japanese stores will have the best selection) make sure it’s sliced thin enough for shabu shabu. Be sure you're not buying the cuts designated for Korean BBQ, which will turn into leather when boiled. What you want for shabu shabu will often be labled “thin slice” or have some other sort of indication it’s been shaved expressly for shabu shabu.
If you intend to add shrimp, like we did, you can completely peel and devein or leave the whole animal intact. Always segregate the raw meat from your vegetables and other pre-cooked items. Food illness by way of cross contamination isn't a way to win over your guests.
When it comes to dipping sauce, we usually buy the ponzu and goma that are bottled for use on shabu shabu. They're usually about $5 a bottle. But we also offer the option of green onion, grated garlic and Huy Fong Food’s garlic chili paste for anyone who wants it. The sauces, by the way, are not optional. It will provide almost all the seasoning and flavor to everything you cook. After all, you are cooking things in plain water.
Which brings me to the subject of the cooking broth. We opt for just water with some kombu. You could use chicken stock, if you want, but it'll be a waste. We'll occasionally add a little sake to the water, but have found that its flavor contribution is so insignificant we’re better off just drinking it. There’s no point seasoning the broth in any other way unless you intend to do Mongolian hot pot, which is an entirely different subject.
Sometimes you'll see udon noodles being offered at shabu shabu restaurants for use after the meal winds down. But it's rare that that anyone we invite for shabu shabu ever wants the noodles. By the end we're usually too stuffed.
One final touch that we added last time, which further brings home the point that shabu shabu at home can be just as good as those in restaurant, was a fake check we printed up to present to our guests. It was a joke. We all had a good laugh. And no, we didn't take their money...yet.
THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Han Yang - Buena Park