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The flavour hung thickly in the air, flickering across my tongue and creeping down my lungs tantalisingly. I swallowed hungrily, saliva collecting in my mouth again almost instantly. The lid of the red pot was lifted and with a heavy sigh more fragrant steam was released, condensing against the cold windows of the conservatory. I stood against the sliding glass door, watching carefully as plates piled high with meat and vegetables were shuffled; I wondered whether the condensation would taste like the air and watched a single drop make its jagged way down the blinds, dropping to the floor and shattering like a liquid crystal.
Time moved in slow motion as my stomach rumbled in anticipation of the great feast ahead of us – was it ready yet? Could we eat now? How about now? Patience was not a virtue I possessed but could you blame me? It was shabu shabu season.
One of the great discoveries in life is that the older you get the more you crave simple home pleasures. These days I find myself longing for the dishes of my childhood – a golden and steamed whole chicken, white rice, dim sum (always on a Sunday), stir-fried beef with tomatoes; even the dishes that became routine hold a small corner of my taste memory (the dry pork cutlet served with a creamy mushroom sauce and spaghetti that after 10 years we would eventually declare we despised and then never eat again and the retro Chicken a la King that was always the dish we ate on return from holiday, spring to mind). Every meal had its time, every day a different food given pride of place on the dining room table and, I admit, we were spoiled, growing complacent with these offerings, tired of the same foods in circulation week in, week out.
As we grew older Asian food featured less and less prominently on the menu, partially due to my teenage rebellion against my heritage, but now I find myself needing a change. Maybe it’s a result of too much rich eating – a sad downside to the life of a food writer – or perhaps it’s simply because I’m nostalgic for the days when food seemed to appear magically on the table. Either way, as the cold weather settled in and I found myself on my sofa bundled up like an eskimo, the only solution for these winter blues was a shabu shabu party, as I had enjoyed every year as a child, just when the frost started to appear on the windows.
Shabu shabu is a Japanese hot-pot dish, (usually) consisting of thin cuts of meat and assorted vegetables cooked in a hot broth at the table, served with various dipping sauces and rice. The term ‘shabu shabu’ literally translates as ‘swish swish,’ referring to the sound of the meat being ‘swished’ around in the hot broth as it cooks. Many of the Asian countries have their own versions of shabu shabu and apparently the Japanese adapted it from Chinese hot-pots, who were influenced by Mongolia – these things are always a bit of a case of mix and match, it seems!
It’s no surprise to me that shabu shabu is so popular – at its core, aside from the good food (which is one of the easiest and yet still most impressive meals to throw together – barely any effort is actually required on behalf of the cook as guests cook their own food!), is a desire to share and a gathering around a singular table with the hot-pot at the centre of it. Certainly in Chinese culture, this gathering is more important than the food itself and when I was growing up meal times were family affairs – dinner time was the only period of the day when we were all together, could sit back, relax, and enjoy our food and company; it was a sacred time.
Now that I’ve moved away from the family nest, I still like to bring my new “family” (made up of friends) together around a table and still see dinner time as a special period of the day. It brings me an inordinate amount of pleasure to be able to share this with people I care about, so I was overjoyed that I could welcome good friends Annabelle, John, Becky and bestie Jun to share in my first solo shabu shabu dinner party and my return to my culinary roots.
Shabu shabu is a very traditional affair for me, so I didn’t stray much from the version I knew and loved as a child – I even borrowed the same red electric wok from my mother that I grew up with, which has remained in excellent condition over the past 20-odd years. You can, of course, mix up your food combinations and use whatever you like, be it fish or meat, just make sure you use quite thin cuts. For this version I used two different types of beef (a slightly fattier beef rib cut (used for Japanese shabu shabu) and a leaner feather blade cut (used for Korean bulgogi)) and thinly sliced pork belly, which is becoming very popular (and deservedly so – it’s terribly unhealthy but utterly delicious). You can find everything you need at good Asian supermarkets.
LEE FAMILY SHABU SHABU
For the stock base:
3 litres unsalted chicken stock (homemade is best, see my slow cooker chicken stock for a basic recipe)
2 litres water
1/2 large daikon radish (also called mooli), peeled and cubed
For the hot-pot:
1/2 large chinese cabbage, washed and sliced (discard the tough root end; I find that halving the cabbage lengthwise is most productive)
5-6 medium pak choi, leaves separated (except for tender inner leaves) and washed thoroughly in cold water (be sure to wash pak choi really well between leaves, as they often collect dirt and small fruit flies towards the base)
Handful shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
3 (100g) packs enoki mushrooms, roots chopped off, rinsed and separated into smaller clumps
2 (349g) blocks firm tofu, cubed
3 (170g) packets of shirataki (yam paste) noodles (these noodles come vacuum sealed in a clear liquid and have a beautiful crunchy texture)
1 packet frozen cuttlefish balls (around 10 balls)
300g frozen shui kau dumplings or wonton dumplings (around 2-3 dumplings per person)
For the meat (if using frozen be sure to move into the fridge to defrost the night before):
350g fresh or frozen thinly sliced feather blade beef
350 g fresh or frozen thinly sliced beef rib
350 g fresh or frozen thinly sliced pork belly
Sesame dipping sauce
Soy sauce (low sodium)
Steamed white rice (I like Japanese short grain rice – it’s stickier than Jasmine)
5 1/2 litre electric wok or electric hot pot
Slow cooker or large stock pot
1. The night before you want to serve your shabu shabu: combine the stock base ingredients in your slow cooker, turn up to high for an hour, then down to low overnight. Turn off in the morning and back onto high about two hours before you want to serve it. When it begins to bubble furiously turn it back down to low until ready to serve. If using a stock pot, simply combine all the ingredients, bring to the boil then simmer for 1-2 hours to allow the flavours to infuse. When ready to use, bring back up to the boil, turn off and ladle into your electric wok/hot pot.
2. When setting your table, give each guest a bowl (for rice), side plate (for cooked meats), side sauce dish or bowl, pair of wooden chopsticks (for cooking) and a separate pair of chopsticks (for eating). If you have it, you can also give each guest a shabu shabu skimmer – a small basket-shaped utensil which makes removing items from the hot-pot much easier, or, failing that, a large ramen spoon, Chinese soup spoon or regular spoon.
3. Slice and prepare all of your vegetables and hot-pot ingredients, place on a few large plates and onto the dining table (be sure to separate the vegetables, noodles and tofu, and meat from one another).
4. When ready to eat, strain the stock and pour it into the electric wok or hot pot. Add the noodles, tofu, vegetables, frozen dumplings and cuttlefish balls first, turn the heat to high and place the lid on for 5-10 mins. Remove the lid, turn the heat to medium-low and allow your guests to help themselves to meat and cook it in the hot broth. It tends to cook very quickly, so keep an eye on it and move it around in the stock (“swish swish”). If you find that too much liquid has evaporated off after a time, you can either top it up with more stock or with water (turn the wok/hot pot back up to high for 5 mins when adding fresh stock or water). The dumplings and cuttlefish balls take about 15 mins to cook and the noodles about 20 mins. The tofu needs about 5-7 mins to heat through thoroughly.
5. Dip the cooked meats into your desired dipping sauce (I like to combine the soy sauce and sesame sauce together) and eat with hot rice. When you’ve finished eating the hot-pot be sure to drink the flavourful broth – it’s delicious!
6. Sit back, enjoy and add this recipe to your winter collection.
Until next time, peace and love,
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