What is Shabu Shabu? The Definitive Guide

Updated May 8, 2019

Swish, swish.

Do you hear that?

Swish, swish?

Yes… that’s shabu shabu. It literally translates to swish, swish.

What is Shabu Shabu?

It’s a sort of hot pot dish where you swish very thinly sliced meat in near boiling hot broth — instantly cooking the meat while you swish it around.

Then you dip it in a sauce and eat it.

It’s absolutely amazing, especially if you get away from one of those all-you-can-eat type of places and splurge on a quality shabu-shabu joint.

Here are Simon and Martina to explain shabu-shabu in their unique way.

One thing to notice in their video — they’re at an all-you-can-eat restaurant. As you can see, the meat is rather… well, extra thinly cut and sort of flakes apart.

Here is another video, this one showcasing high-grade wagyu beef.

Massive difference right?

Let’s dig in a learn more about shabu-shabu.

Meats Used in Shabu Shabu

Typically shabu-shabu is beef. However, you can find pork at most shabu-shabu restaurants now.

The meat is sliced super thin so  it can cook quickly when you swish it around in the hot broth.

Here are a couple keywords to help you order what you want.

Gyuniku (牛肉) — this is beef.

Butaniku (豚肉) — this is pork.

Gyu is cow, buta is pork. When combined with niku it is referring to the meat of each animal.

All-You-Can-Eat vs. Order by the Plate

The all-you-can-eat restaurants will have a tiered menu. Where the cheapest tier will be pork only, a middle tier of pork/beef, and a top-tier with higher quality beef/pork options.

Of course, by the time you get to the top-tier you’re spending nearly as much as you would at an order by the plate type restaurant.

You’ll typically have something like 90 minutes to eat as much as you can.

This is another reason I prefer the order by plate restaurants. While you may end up spending a bit more at one of these places, you can also take your time. Relax. Enjoy your delicious meal.

Vegetables in Shabu Shabu

There are a wide variety of vegetables that you may find at shabu-shabu restaurants in Japan. Here are the popular ones.

Kyabetsu (キャベツ) = cabbage

Shungiku (春菊) = chrysanthemum greens  

Negi (ねぎ) = long, green onion (leeks)

Bunashimeji (ブナシメジ) = brown beech mushroom

Shiitake (シイタケ) = the famous shiitake mushroom

Enokitake (えのきたけ) = clustered white mushroom

Raw Ingredients You Cook for Yourself

When you place your order the ingredients will arrive on plates and trays — raw, ready for you to put into the boiling broth.

I recommend you put the harder vegetables in first. They take the longest to cook.

Let them cook for a bit then add the softer vegetables. As they boil together they add to the flavor of the broth — making it ready for the meat.

What is Shabu Shabu Broth?

It’s not just hot water that you swish the meat in to cook.

Some restaurants, especially the big shabu-shabu chain restaurants, will allow you to choose two different flavors of broth, from a selection of five or six varieties.

The pot is split in the middle so half can be one flavor and the other another.

The higher-end shabu-shabu restaurants give you the unique flavor they craft in-house — usually a kombu (kelp) base.

The Typical Ingredients in Shabu Shabu Broth

There are many varieties of shabu-shabu broth, but the most common broth may make you chuckle how easy it is to make.

Drop a large chunk of kombu into the water and boil it — let the flavor seep out.

Yes, that’s it.

The other ingredients, the vegetables and the meat, add flavor over time as you enjoy your meal.

The Hot Nabe Pot

The pot in which shabu shabu is cooked is called a nabe (なべ). There are a couple main types of nabe pots.

Donabe (土鍋)

This is a clay earthenware pot. The designs can be quite intricate and beautiful.

The clay material allows the pot to retain heat for a long time even after turning off the burner.

Tetsunabe (鉄鍋)

This is a cast iron, steel, or even sometimes aluminum pot. These are the type you’ll see at restaurants most frequently.

However, if you visit a small, boutique, traditional Japanese restaurant you’ll likely see the clay donabe pot.

How Do You Eat Shabu Shabu?

It really is as simple as putting in the tougher vegetables that take longer to cook first. Then the thinner, easier to cook vegetables.

Then swish the meat in the hot broth, dip, and eat.

This is best summed up in a video.

Shabu Shabu Sauces

Yakumi (やくみ)

This is more of a condiment than a dipping sauce. It’s grated onion or daikon radish with soy sauce… sometimes sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds.

This can sometimes be a bit different between shabu-shabu shops — each trying to make themselves unique from the others.

Ponzu (ぽんず)

Ponzu is a citrus, soy sauce, and vinegar mixture. It’s really light tasting and adds a bit of punch to the shabu-shabu.

Some ponzu will also have ginger added (or a few slices of pickled ginger on the side).

Gomadare (ごまだれ)

Gomadare is a sesame dressing-like sauce. Very much like salad dressing, but a bit runnier.

It’s mashed sesame seeds soy sauce, vinegar, rice wine vinegar, sugar and other ingredients.

The “cheap” all-you-can-eat places will cheat and use sesame salad dressing though. If you want a more traditional flavor, go elsewhere.

Shabu Shabu Noodles?

Yes… interestingly enough, it is very common to add udon or ramen noodles to the broth toward the end of the meal.

This changes the flavor and gives you something else to entertain your tastebuds.

Essentially, after you’ve eaten the meat and vegetables all you will have left is a very flavorful broth. Add the noodles, let them boil for a couple minutes, and enjoy!

Shabu Shabu Restaurant Recommendations

Imafuku, Minato, Tokyo, Japan

Imafuku: A5 Wagyu Shabu-Shabu & Sukiyaki Absolute Perfection

Imafuku is a Michelin-starred wagyu shabu-shabu and sukiyaki restaurant specializing in top-notch quality dining in Minato, Tokyo.

Shabu Shabu Q&A

What is the difference between sukiyaki and shabu shabu?

This is simple to answer. While both dishes use very similar ingredients, the flavor and cooking technique differ.

Sukiyaki is cooked in a skillet with a mixture of soy sauce and sugar.

Shabu-shabu is cooked in boiling broth

Here’s a great video showing the difference.

Is Shabu Shabu Japanese or Korean?

If you’re interested in the origin of shabu-shabu, according to Wikipedia it’s a descendant of the Chinese hotpot. Which is probably of Mongolian origin.

Shabu-shabu can be found in both Korea and Japan, but the flavor differs greatly between the two.

Korean shabu-shabu uses kimchi and other such ingredients to make the broth a more powerful flavor.

If you enjoy Korean shabu-shabu, or ate it before trying the Japanese variety, you’ll probably find the Japanese shabu-shabu a bit bland.

Is shabu shabu healthy?

It sure is. Veggies in a kombu broth and quality beef/pork.

Not much to go wrong there right?

I suppose you could over-indulge yourself and therefore consume too many calories… and there could be some amount of unhealthiness involved.

But probably not. Shabu-shabu is super healthy.

Can you eat shabu shabu while pregnant?

Yes, you should have no problems.

However, you are aware of your own food sensitivities. Be careful, there is quite a bit of variety of ingredients in shabu-shabu.

Mostly vegetables though so just keep a lookout for foods you personally know you cannot eat.