In Sydneysiders’ rush to get to the latest ramen joint, we’ve overlooked another Japanese dish that is equally, if not more, delicious – shabu-shabu.
On paper, shabu-shabu is a simple meal of broth, vegetables and protein. In practice, it’s the ultimate comfort dish; it’s rich with tradition and it uses premium ingredients.
Chinese versions of shabu-shabu are common in Sydney, but Japanese-style shabu-shabu is harder to find. In China, hotpot dishes feature chilli and pork and are heavily seasoned. “The flavour is completely different,” says Chase Kojima, executive chef at Sokyo at The Star. “To me, shabu-shabu is Japanese.”
Kojima has added shabu-shabu to the Sokyo menu in time for the cooler weather. “We wanted to do something that warms you up,” he says. Ramen has been done and he wanted to try something new. “I wanted to add to Sydney’s food vocabulary.”
Kojima tells Broadsheet everything you need to know about shabu-shabu.
What is shabu-shabu?
Originating in Osaka in the 1950s, shabu-shabu is a savoury twist on sukiyaki, another popular hotpot dish in Japan.
Traditional shabu-shabu features a simple broth brought to the table in a pot known as a nabe. Raw vegetables and meat, sliced paper-thin, are cooked in the broth at the table. The name is an onomatopoeic take on the “swish-swish” sound the meat makes as the diner moves it through the broth with chopsticks. A selection of dipping sauces finishes the dish.
Eaten both at home and at restaurants, shabu-shabu is a celebratory dish associated with special occasions. The good news is “it’s very easy to prepare – you don’t have to cook too much,” says Kojima. “You cook it while you eat.”
What goes in the pot
The shabu-shabu broth, or dashi, is made from kombu, an umami-rich type of kelp. “Traditionally for any stock in Japan, we use kombu and shaved bonito flakes,” says Kojima. “The broth we use at Sokyo is rich – we use a lot of chicken bones and kombu.”
Common shabu-shabu vegetables include napa cabbage, scallions, carrots, enoki and shitake mushrooms, and shungiku, an astringent vegetable common in Asian cooking also known as chrysanthemum greens.
The protein component might be thinly sliced fish, pork or beef. Many versions also contain noodles and tofu, says Kojima. “At Sokyo we’re doing nicely cut Wagyu tenderloin.”
In a break from tradition, chefs at Sokyo slightly pre-cook the Wagyu before sending it to the table. “We cut it thicker than a normal shabu-shabu, because I want customers to enjoy the bite more,” Kojima says. “If it’s raw, it won’t cook.”
How it works
The appeal of shabu-shabu lies in the ritual of eating it. A burner on the table keeps the broth at a simmer. Vegetables are added first, starting with harder, longer-cooking varieties like carrot and leaving leafy greens to last.
Finally, the beef (or another protein) is submerged in the broth. Only add as much as you can eat in one or two bites, and make it a quick dunk if you like it rare. “If you want to cook it all the way, you leave it in there,” advises Kojima.
Once blanched in the broth, the different ingredients are dipped in sauces such as ponzu, a citrus-soy sauce, and sesame-flavoured goma-tare, and often eaten with white rice.
The secret to delicious shabu-shabu
One of the secrets to Sokyo’s shabu-shabu is premium-tuna fish sauce, which is not a common Japanese ingredient. “Fish sauce is usually made from squid or crab or sardines,” says Kojima. “This one is a Korean product, and they make it with tuna. It doesn’t taste like normal fish sauce. It’s a whole new level of umami.”
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