- Shabu Shabu: The Perfect Dish for Visitors to Japan
- A Tasty Treat: Dried Bonito Flakes
- Service, Surroundings and Sake
Shabu Shabu: The Perfect Dish for Visitors to Japan
Shabu Shabu is one of those Japanese dishes best experienced in Japan since it’s not easy to buy those paper thin slices of beef and pork in other countries. Also some skill is required to make a flavourful “dashi”, the Japanese soup stock into which the slices of meat are dipped, or swished, for just a few seconds. By the way, do you know the origin of the name “Shabu Shabu”? It is said to be noise you make when swishing the meat around in the “dashi” in order to cook it.
So, when I have visitors, I usually make one night a Shabu Shabu one. Another reason I take visitors to eat this dish, is that some knowledge on how to cook and eat your food is needed. In most Western countries, it’s not the custom to make your own food when eating out. Dexterity with chopsticks is also required: I often find myself supervising the contents of the hot pot and fishing out stray bits of meat. Hopefully this experience will prepare my visitors for further adventures with Japanese cuisine!
My favourite place for Shabu Shabu is Nabezou: on top of being affordable, they are 100% non-smoking and have branches throughout Tokyo. However, once in awhile, I like to check out new places. A little research yielded Okaka Dashi Shabu Obanzai (おかか出汁しゃぶおばんざい) the number 3 Shabu Shabu restaurant in Shinjuku on Tabelog. Okaka is located on Yasukuni Dori Avenue, on the 8th floor of the building next to the Don Quixote that guards the entrance to Kabukicho. They are also entirely non-smoking.
A Tasty Treat: Dried Bonito Flakes
The main reason to visit Okaka is for its “dashi” which is made from freshly shaved “katsuobushi” or flakes of dried bonito fish (also used as an okonomiyaki topping). Although the English description doesn’t sound appealing, it’s surprisingly tasty. Once seated, a wooden square box filled with Bonito shavings is placed on the table. This is the obligatory “otooshi” or appetizer which doubles as a seating charge and costs 500 yen. Using a pair of wooden tongs, you can help yourself to the bonito flakes which can be eaten alone or with “chawanmushi”, a tasty steamed egg custard (also delicious by itself).
It was my first experience eating these tasty flakes in this manner and I couldn’t stop myself going for seconds (and even thirds). They just melted inside my mouth. We ordered the recommended dish: the “dashi shabu” (1980 yen per person) and I was happy to see a refilled box of flakes appear at our table. Next, the nabe pot with Okaka’s “dashi” was set on the table. Then a wooden box filled with super thin slices of black Kagoshima pork, as well as lots of fresh vegetables, was placed next to it. The “dashi shabu” includes all-you-can eat vegetables.
Once the soup started to simmer, we were invited to taste it, which was also a first for me. One thing to know about dashi is that the taste can seem rather thin if you aren’t used to Japanese cuisine. In other words, it’s a subtle delicate taste that isn’t always easy to appreciate, especially when you are used to thicker, richer sauces. Then the staff added bonito flakes into the soup to increase its flavour, and we were invited to taste it again – a nice touch.
After my first bite, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the final result. After doing “shabu shabu” with a slice of pork in the “dashi”, I dipped it once more in the same “dashi” in the small bowl in front of me. It still tasted a bit underwhelming. Fortunately, you can add bonito flakes to your own bowl (or even the nabe pot) to your heart’s content, till you feel satisfied with the taste. This level of sophistication is one reason why this type of shabu shabu may not be suitable for a first-time visitor to Japan, who wouldn’t have anything to compare the taste to.
Another difficulty for the novice to Japan and Japanese cooking, is that the pork is so finely sliced that the slices tend to stick together; despite my many years of chopstick practice, I found it difficult to separate each slice gracefully. In the end, I gave up, and breaking with shabu shabu etiquette, dropped a bunch of slices into the soup in one go. It turns out that isn’t such a bad way to each shabu shabu after all!
Service, Surroundings and Sake
This restaurant is not only popular and healthy; they also have great service. Since the place was full when we arrived, we were seated at a regular two-person table, which can be a bit cramped for a shabu shabu course. However, just after we had ordered, they offered to move us to a bigger table that had just become available. That shows a certain amount of consideration towards their customers. They also had a unique system for calling waiters: a small wooden oblong which, depending on how you placed in on the table, told the staff what you needed:
- Simply call the staff to your table
- Bring some water
- Clear the table
- Pay the bill (you pay at the table)
- Order some food or drinks
The various actions are written in English on the block so it can be quite useful if you don’t speak any Japanese at all. By the way, the menu also has good English translations of the main shabu shabu dishes. Unfortunately, the menu for “obanzai” side dishes (480 yen each, 3 for 1280 yen) are in Japanese only. By the way, “Obanzai” is a kind of light home cooking from Kyoto. We ordered the set of three:
- Deep-fried pork, okra and dried plum rolled together おくらと梅肉の肉巻き揚げ
- Deep-fried marinated eggplant 茄子の揚げ浸
- Tempura of avocado アボカドの天ぷら
Each was delicious. It made me want to visit Kyoto and eat some more of their home cooking.
Another unique aspect of this restaurant is that it spacious by Japanese standards. Not only is there lots of space between tables, the ceiling is very high and the white walls are sparsely decorated. The resulting effect is a modern and relaxing atmosphere. One drawback is that the restaurant can get a bit noisy when full (which it often is). There is a private space on one side of the restaurant, separated by screens, which can seat small and large groups (up to 20 people).
Another thing that got me excited about Okaka, was their nice sake selection. On top of a fixed menu of ten famous sake, they had three featured sake. A cup of any sake was 650 yen, whereas an “ichigo” was 980 yen. I was entirely satisfied with the generous amount of sake that the staff poured for us in beautiful cups directly at the table. The menu also has a number of wines selected by a sommelier, including wines made in Japan – a good option if you want to eat and drink 100% local! Finally, Okaka has a three hour all-you-can-drink option for 1500 yen (1000 yen without sake).
There was one more surprise after we paid for our meal. The staff handed us a parting gift: a bag containing fresh dried bonito flakes to enjoy at home. On my way out, I realised that I felt full without being stuffed, and I reflected that Okaka certainly lived up to its motto “kokoro yuku made odashi o taberu” 心ゆくまでお出汁を食べる which translates as “Eat dashi to your heart’s content”.
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