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NIPPONIA No.35 December 15, 2005

Bon Appetit!
Japanese Culture in the Kitchen
Cuisine from China:
Gather 'Round the Pot for Some Premium Meat, Sliced Paper Thin with Vegetables
Written by Otani Hiromi, food journalist
Photos by Kono Toshihiko
At Zakuro Restaurant in Tokyo, you can order shabu-shabu served in an authentic Chinese-style pot with a “chimney,” as seen in this meal specially prepared at the restaurant. Charcoal is placed in the central “chimney,” and once it is burning well, it keeps the broth boiling strongly, which is ideal for cooking. As soon as the color of the meat changes, you should remove it from the broth, then dip it in the sauce. The sauce served here (bottom left) is flavored with sesame.
There are six Zakuro in Tokyo. Here are the phone numbers for two of them: in Akasaka (Tel: 03-3582-2661), and in Ginza (Tel: 03-3535-4421).

Beef cut into paper-thin slices, dropped piece by piece into a broth in a common pot, then dipped in a sauce—this is shabu-shabu, one of Japan's best known meat and vegetable dishes, along with sukiyaki.
Marbled beef, which has a network of fine strands of fat, is considered a delicacy in Japan, and the best way to eat it is in shabu-shabu. Connoisseurs like to eat it very rare, because then it practically melts in the mouth.
Shabu-shabu became part of Japanese cuisine after World War II. Its origin can be traced to a Chinese dish from Beijing called shuan yang rou, which is cooked in a huo guo zi (a donut-shaped pot with a “chimney” in the hole). The original Chinese version uses very thin slices of mutton cooked for just a few seconds in a soup brought to a boil with a charcoal fire. Like shabu-shabu, the ingredients are eaten after seasoning them in a dip.
In 1952, a restaurant in Osaka called Suehiro got the idea to take this dish and adapt it to Japanese tastes. Mutton is not commonly eaten in Japan, so they tried beef instead, something the Japanese were used to. Three years later a Tokyo restaurant, Zakuro, began serving shabu-shabu as well. Soon it spread throughout the country as a common meal featuring beef.
So where does the name “shabu-shabu” come from? Some say it is from the sound made when swishing the meat around in the hot broth, but that is only one theory. Zakuro's Izumi Akiyoshi says: “I've heard that when it was first served here, the menu called it gyu-niku no mizu-taki (“beef simmered in a pot at the table”). Anyway, shabu-shabu sure is a good name for it!”
Purists use the original type of pot with a “chimney” in the middle, but most homes use something simpler, a wide ceramic pot placed on a heating element at the table. In addition to the paper-thin slices of beef, ingredients include Welsh onion, tofu, Chinese cabbage and mushrooms. Specialty restaurants use a beef and vegetable stock, but another good option is a kombu seaweed (kelp) broth. There are two common dipping sauces. One is sesame-flavored, made by mixing soy sauce with finely ground sesame, the other is citrus-flavored (a mixture of citrus juice and soy sauce).
It is best to start with some of the beef slices, then, when the broth takes on the flavor of the meat, it is time to dig into the vegetables and mushrooms. The beef should be sliced as thinly as possible. Everyone sits around the common pot with chopsticks, picks up pieces of pre-sliced food from the plate and floats them on the hot broth. The taste is better if the pieces are not completely cooked through. Of course, some people want their food cooked a little more. That is the beauty of shabu-shabu—everyone does their own cooking right at the table.
High-quality beef is considered a real luxury in Japan. When it is cold outside, shabu-shabu warms the body; it is perfect for a cozy meal with friends. Maybe that is why people like it so much.NIPONIA

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