While researching this week's review of Chinese-American shabu shabu restaurants in the Richmond and Sunset, I called Tadashi Ono, the chef of Matsuri in New York and coauthor of Japanese Hot Pots. I wanted to get a sense of how exactly San Francisco shabu shabu diverges from traditional Japanese preparation.
The Japanese have been eating beef only since Buddhist proscriptions against eating red meat were abolished in the mid-19th century, so shabu shabu doesn't date back to time immemorial.
In fact, says Ono, it dates back to just after World War II, when the Japanese imported it from China.
"I think it was based on Beijing- and Mongolian-style hot pot," Ono says. "The method of cooking was brought by Chinese cooks who came back to Japan with army surgeons who'd stayed in China during the war. The Chinese normally use lamb, but since the Japanese are not familiar with lamb, we adapted it to beef."
Traditional shabu shabu, he says, uses a water base flavored simply with
kombu -- none of the ginger-infused chicken stocks or spicy miso broths
that S.F. restaurants use. Napa cabbage, chrysanthemum greens, several
kinds of mushrooms, Tokyo leeks (which are like oversized scallions),
and stretchy yam-starch noodles are traditionally cooked in the pot. San Franciscan restaurateurs add such novelties as taro, daikon,
watercress, and udon and ramen noodles.
And the traditional meat is beef and beef alone. "They serve loin --
sirloin or strip loin -- cut very thin," Ono says. But isn't that a lean cut?
"Yes," he agrees. "But Japanese beef has a lot of fat content, a lot of
marbling, so it's pretty tasty." American cooks, who don't have the cash to spend on Wagyu, substitute fattier cuts
such as short rib and well-marbled sections of ribeye.
Lastly, there's no sign of chile paste, chopped garlic, cilantro, or
shrimp paste on the table. "Normally we only
serve ponzu -- soy and citrus -- as a dipping sauce, and a sesame sauce made with ground
sesame seeds, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, and dashi."
What about peanut sauce? I asked him. It's a common accompaniment to S.F. shabu shabu.
"Peanut sauce? Really?" he asked, then paused for a second. "Sounds good, though."
Here's Ono making shabu shabu with Martha Stewart: