FAIR WARNING: You will need special equipment for this recipe. Specifically a butane tabletop cooker. Like this one.
I don’t remember the first time I had shabu shabu, a style of Japanese fondue, but I remember it was in Evergreen, CO of all places. It was so delicious that after the first taste, I scoured eBay (which was still in its infancy, back in 1999 or 2000) to find a shabu shabu pot. After we moved from that house, I never again saw the original box the pot came in but if you could see the image in my mind right now, you would swear it came from WWII Japan. All the writing was in Japanese and the paper label on the blue cardboard box was tattering and falling off.
This pot weighs over four pounds (about 2 kgs.) It is heavy-duty and could make for a nice heirloom – you know, if we had kids to pass it down to and took better care of it, polished it once in a while, stored it away from dust and daylight. Alas, that’s not who we are so it’ll probably end up in a landfill in 50 years when people have forgotten (or, in this country, never knew) how delicious shabu shabu is and why they should try it.
If you ever saw “Lost In Translation” (an exceedingly boring movie, if you ask me), at the end of the movie, Bill Murray is with Scarlett Johansen and they’re eating shabu shabu in Tokyo. Bucket list! Except not really. Authentic shabu shabu uses a dashi broth and dashi, for those not familiar, dashi is fish / dregs of the ocean / slimy seaweed broth. Our version uses beef broth as its base because otherwise I never would’ve tried it. (Why the heck would you ruin perfectly delectable Wagyu beef by boiling it in FISH broth? Yuck.)
Anyway, if you want to know more about shabu shabu’s history, you can check out this link. My incarnation of shabu stems from a long-forgotten recipe from Food Network (probably Emeril Lagasse if I had to guess) but has been adapted since then to suit our tastes and sensibilities. This is the meal I ask for every year on my birthday because I love it that much. So from that information, you’d think this was a special-once-a-year meal only to be prepared with appropriate dedication and reverence. Except we have it probably ten or twelve times a year, but definitely on my birthday!
The basis of this dish is the broth. That’s what the meat and vegetables are gently cooked in and that broth needs to be flavorful to impart some of its taste to the meat. In order to get the broth flavored just right, green onions, ginger, garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce are added. To help the broth take on some of what will be eaten as part of the meal, when the vegetables are trimmed and prepared for serving, the refuse is coarsely chopped and added to the broth as well.
If you do any research on shabu shabu outside of this blog post, you’ll find a wide array of vegetables being used: some mainstream, many esoteric. (Straw mushrooms aren’t exactly plentiful in Salem, OR.) As such, I encourage you to use whatever vegetables you like and can readily find. I think the original recipe called for bok choy which is how we started this dish many years ago but the thick white stems are very moisture-rich and that meant I kept burning my mouth as I put scalding hot bok choy in there. And then the green leaves were a bit fibrous for my preferences. We dabbled with baby bok choy (sam choy, I believe) and that was slightly better but ultimately we moved away from the choys.
We have always included asparagus and mushrooms – not only were they part of the original recipe but we love them and they’re readily available. Recently (maybe in the last five years), we added snow peas to the mix. My frustration with the snow peas is the outside strings and they’re not always in season so they can be somewhat sketchy when you manage to find them. I put some snap peas in the cart once and we ate them; my husband grudgingly so, I devoured them. I liked the crunch and the string-free experience whereas the snow peas are more of a silky texture (strings-aside.) Again, go for whatever vegetables YOU like.
After doing some research myself for this blog post, I saw some appealing vegetable trays for shabu and a number of them included carrots so I thought “Sure, why not?!” I used my crinkle cutter to slice the peeled carrot on a diagonal to give the slices enough surface to hold some dipping sauce. After I started cutting them this way, I realized “using chopsticks for this could turn bad quickly!” You know, if the grooves didn’t line up. As it happened, the grooves from the crinkle cutter weren’t the problem. Carrots are heavy. And they sink. And the broth is beef-based with soy sauce added, so it’s dark. And it becomes a challenge to find carrots once they’ve gone into the pot. (The asparagus, mushrooms and peas all float, thankfully.) Aside from being able to fish the carrots out quickly, I absolutely loved having them with the dish. They were hearty and mild and a great conduit for getting the dipping sauce into my mouth – which is kind of the point of the meal.
Also, for the first time with this meal, we cooked brown rice instead of white rice. Normally we put out a bowl of steamed rice and we each scoop a bunch into our bowls. The rice serves as a sponges for draining meats and vegetables after they’ve been cooked.
Word to the wise: wear a bib. I’m not kidding! You’ll end up with sesame dipping sauce all down the front of your shirt if you don’t. Ask me how I know.
I’ve never really been a fan of plain white rice – drench it in crystal sauce for my shrimp with snow peas or mix it with my kung pao chicken, I’ll eat every grain of rice. Plain white rice? No thank you. As such, I never ate the rice. My husband, however, did eat the rice. Now that we’re working hard on losing weight, getting in shape and taking better care of ourselves, I managed to talk him into trying brown rice with shabu.
Our rice cooker is probably at least 15 years old and the bowl inside has seen better days but it still cooks rice perfectly every time. It employs “fuzzy logic” which detects moisture levels (or something) to determine temperature and time. While we got to know that a single scoop of long grain white rice would take about 38 minutes to cook, there were times when it might take 40 or 36 simply depending on if the water was too high or too low, or if the water was warmer or cooler when put in with the rice. For the brown rice setting, the lines begin at two scoops so you automatically know it will take a while longer. But the Zojirushi also includes a soak cycle for the rice as well as a steam cycle. The bottom line is that it takes TWO HOURS to get brown rice made, hence the lengthy time quoted for the recipe. You are free and welcome to use white rice and each much more quickly if you prefer! The brown rice (organic short grain in our house) has a nutty, chewy texture that goes surprisingly well with the sesame dipping sauce. Yes, I actually ate some rice with my shabu for the first time ever.
If you make brown rice, you’ll invariably have leftover rice which begs the question: what to do with it? I suggest a version of an Original Yumm Bowl. (Or there are plenty of recipes online for brown rice bowls – find one that works for you and dig in!)
If I could telepathically convey to you the deliciousness that is their Yumm sauce, you’d buy a case and have it shipped ASAP. But in the meantime, I think there are copycat recipes of Yumm Sauce online if you’re inclined to give it a try at home before splurging on the real deal.
While the broth is the basis of the dish, the meat can be the star of the meal – if you get the right meat. If you have an Asian supermarket nearby, go there. Our nearest one is 40 miles away and yes, we make the drive probably every six weeks or so and we stock up on our Asian pantry supplies, including frozen beef.
However H-Mart does it, they are the masters of thin-sliced beef and the best option we’ve found is the frozen beef boneless thin-sliced short rib. It is insanely marbled without a lot of fatty-gristle like we used to get when we picked up their less expensive trays of thin-sliced ribeye. This shows about one pound of beef but don’t be alarmed by the price showing on the sticker. That price was for 1.805 pounds of short rib and we split the package in two. (And don’t ask why it’s sideways; it’s not that way on my hard drive but it seems that WordPress has other things in mind.) Your beef needs to be very thinly and evenly sliced in order to cook quickly and fully. I only keep each slice of beef in there for a slow ten-count and then set it on my rice to cool a bit before breaking it into two or three pieces for dipping. H-Mart will have their thin-sliced beef in plastic-wrapped trays, in clear plastic bowls or in knotted clear plastic bags – all in the freezer section.
I wouldn’t hold out much hope of getting your non-Asian butcher to fully comprehend what you need for this but you can certainly try. One time, we asked the butcher at Roth’s to thinly slice some filet mignon for this dish for us. He sliced it by hand, with a knife. (My husband could’ve done better at home with a meat slicer, which we have.) But truly, it was our fault for both asking for it there and for selecting filet, the least fatty cut of meat on the cow.
The crowning achievement of this meal in terms of umami in your mouth will be the dipping sauce. There’s something other-wordly about this stuff. The recipe originally called for sesame paste. This is elusive stuff, even in the Asian supermarket. And per ounce, a bit pricey. As such, we’ve shifted toward the more economical bulk jar of tahini. It’s still sesame-based but it can be thinner in nature though it still turns into cement at the bottom of the jar as the solids settle out of the oil. (I’ve bent a few utensils trying to stir that stuff back to life.) Whether it’s true or not, I tend to think of tahini as raw sesame seeds and sesame paste as toasted sesame seeds.
The meal itself is fairly straightforward: make the broth, strain the broth, cook the rice, serve the meat and veggies, let everyone cook for themselves. We usually serve this with an Asian cucumber salad and chilled sake or sometimes some ice-cold Asahi beer.
Japanese meat fondue with vegetables, rice and a sesame dipping sauce
- 8 cups beef stock or broth
- 1¾ cup chopped green onion (and whites)
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 serrano pepper, sliced about ½” thick
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil (or hot sesame oil)
- 1 pound highly-marbled beef, thinly sliced
- ¼ pound snow pea pods, trimmed
- ½ pound crimini mushrooms, wiped clean, stems removed
- 16 to 20 asparagus spears
- 1 very thick carrot, peeled
- steamed rice (white or brown, recipe time includes 2 hrs cooking time for brown rice)
Dipping Sauce Ingredients
- 3 tablespoons sesame paste or tahini
- ½ cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- In a large pot, combine the stock, green onions, ginger, garlic, oil and soy sauce. Turn heat to low.
- Remove stems from mushrooms and set aside. Place mushroom caps in a bowl for serving. Roughly chop mushroom stems and add to pot.
- Remove the tough ends of the asparagus spears and set aside. Of tender ends, cut asparagus spears in half and place in container for serving. Roughly chop tough ends of asparagus and add to pot.
- Use a knife or crinkle cutter to slice ¼” thick slices on the diagonal and place in vessel for serving.
- Trim both ends of snow pea pods and place in vessel for serving.
- With vegetable scraps added to stock pot, turn heat up to medium-high and bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Remove from heat and strain thoroughly. Keep warm.
- Prepare dipping sauce: Combine all ingredients in a small blender (or Ninja or appropriate vessel with an immersion blender) and blend until smooth. Scrape down sides as necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired: add more red pepper or sesame paste for thickness or soy sauce to thin out the sauce.
- Arrange beef and vegetables for serving.
- Provide each guest with individual cups of dipping sauce, a large bowl for rice, beef & vegetables and chopsticks. Place a table-top cooker within easy reach of everyone. Keep the stock simmering throughout the meal, adding more as necessary.