Monday, June 2, 2014

Shabu Shabu - A really great meal

Cooking your meal at the table is one sure way of having a great meal. Meals like this involve copious amounts of alcohol, often involve several co-diners and result in much hilarity and merriment.

Think Cheese Fondue where you dip bread into a pot of molten cheese. Think Mongolian Hotpot or Steamboats, as they are also known, where meat, fish and vegetables are placed in a pot of boiling soup and fished out with a spider [perforated ladle]. Think Fondue Bourguignon the great meat fondue where meat is dipped in a pot of oil and then eaten with a variety of sauces. And, alas, think of the Jain, Khandelwal and Shah favourite, the Chocolate Fondue. Chocolate Fondue aside, these `interactive’ meals are always great fun and delicious.

The Japanese have their own versions. One is called Shabu Shabu and the other is called Sukiyaki. Sukiyaki is less common, I believe. The broth is sweeter and the meat and veg are cooked together in one bowl and given to you hot.

Shabu Shabu differs. You get a pot of plain boiling water, some thinly sliced beef or pork and some vegetables. Along with this you get a bowl in which you mix your condiments, invariably Sesame Paste/Sauce, Ponzu Sauce [which can simply be described as Soy with Citrus]. First you put the vegetables into the boiling water to flavour it. You keep the noodles back. You pick up the meat and swish it in the boiling water to cook it [this takes a matter of seconds] dunk it in one of the condiments and eat. You of course eat the vegetables too which by now are fully cooked. Once you are done with the meat, you add the noodle to the water which is now flavoured with the meat and eat that too.

All this sounds very simple. But the clever Japanese have raised this to an art form. You can make Shabu Shabu with some ordinary beef and pork. Fish is never used in Shabu Shabu. But no, the wonderful Japanese have much more to offer. They have Wagyu!! Japanese beef is of the highest quality. The level of marbling in their beef is simply astounding. This is not simply fat. This is something else. The fat is dispersed all thru the cut of beef not only on the outside or running in a strip or vein. This marbling is finer, much finer and all pervasive. Beef in Europe is expensive especially dry aged well marbled beef. But in Japan, it is shocking how expensive it can get. Like most Japanese food, you have grades and grades and grades, and yes, you really can make out the differences between grades. So you can order beef at many price points. A normal portion of beef is 120 grams, which is quite small. Normally, in Europe a portion of beef is between 225 to 250 grams. Of course in America it is much larger. Depending on how much you order and the quality offered [most Shabu Shabu places offer several grades] you can eat from as little as Y 2500 to Y 15,000 per person on the beef alone. Add to this the booze and you can run up a hefty bill.

This is an American Rib Eye, and, by Western standards heavily marbled. Most of the fat is on the outside with fat forming the eye.

This is Japanese Wagyu. It is the same cut, i.e. Rib Eye but look at the difference in marbling. 

The first Shabu Shabu place we went to was in Tokyo called Shabusen. Earlier in the day we did a recce to locate the restaurant. Shabusen is a mid level Shabu Shabu place and, quite popular. We ordered a portion of their higher quality beef and a portion of pork [three cuts, a loin a belly and a third I do not remember]. Soon everything arrived and we started to eat. I had my doubts. I was deeply suspicious of what value add, taste wise, the water would have. Should not a stock have been a wiser choice? Anyway, with some misgivings I dipped a slice of beef into the water and swished it around. It cooked in seconds. I dipped it in the Sesame Sauce and ate it. I was blown away. I have never, ever, categorically never, eaten beef as soft, melting and delicious as this in my entire 50 odd years on the planet. We have eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world, Paul Bocuse, Alain Ducasse, Michel Roux, Alain Roux, Gordon Ramsay, Joel Robuchon among others, but nowhere I we eaten beef like this. And, unbelievably, it was cooked in water, fucking water. After that, the Pork paled in comparison.

The vegetables and noodles 

3 cuts of Pork

Pot of boiling water

Connected to power to heat the water 

The sauces - Left is Sesame with some Chili Oil Right is Ponzu with some Radish 

Mind you, once you have eaten the beef you are a goner. Nothing tastes as good. The magic is because the beef itself is just so good and because they slice it so thin. You need minimal heat and minimal time in heat to get the meat cooked. Unlike Western food where beef is served in large pieces weighing in excess of 225 grams each, here each piece probably weighs just a few grams.

That first Shabu Shabu was an eye opener. We wanted more. This meal had to be repeated.

The next time we were in Osaka and we located a Shabu Shabu place, under the railway tracks. We made a reservation for the evening. Before dinner, we were looking for a place to have a drink when in the most unusual and surreal situation there was an `Oktoberfest’ being held in May in Osaka. This was complete with a German Brass Band, German `Oktoberfest’ food [sausages, Grilled chicken Sauerkraut, Pretzels] and all manner of German beer. My God the Japanese were happy. Everyone was drinking large mugs of German beer, chomping down on Sausages and sitting at tables in the open as well as under tents. It was lively, it was fun, and it was surreal. We had a mug of beer and went on to dinner.

The line to get the food

We reached Shabutei, went in and sat at the counter. This place was slightly differently configured from Shabusen. We sat at the counter and each of us had our own pot of water. In the centre was a slicing machine and as you ordered the beef was sliced, weighed and given to you. This place was even better than Shabusen. We ordered a beef plate and a pork plate. Frankly, you should not waste time, money and stomach space on pork, just stick to the beef.

The Beef

The Pork

A large grinder to grind Sesame to make the Sesame Sauce. 

A Shabu Shabu meal is a must when in Japan. And, try and get at least one portion of really good beef. You will not regret it, ever.

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