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Hot pot cooking goes haute
What's the most expensive dinner in America? An omakase meal of pristine, perfectly sliced sushi, the fish flown in from Tsukiji market in Tokyo and prepared for you personally by a Yoda-equivalent sushi master? Or maybe a 12-course tasting menu from a Michelin three-star French chef, each plate a culmination of several components made by an army of kitchen staff? Not exactly. It's most likely $500-per-person Japanese hot pot -- yes, hot pot.
A popular style of Asian home cooking, hot pot comes from a nearly 1,000-year-old culinary tradition of dipping sliced meat or seafood and vegetables into bubbling broth, supposedly à la Genghis Khan. A communal dish cooked and shared at the dining table, it's soul food, great for cold weather and for feeding an intimate group (emphasis on the intimate -- you are, after all, eating from the same pot).
Lately, though, the humble hot pot doesn't seem so humble. Masayoshi Takayama, the sushi chef whose New York restaurant Masa might be the epitome of rarefied Japanese dining in the U.S., has taken it to Las Vegas. At Shaboo, the restaurant he just opened there, his version of shabu-shabu -- traditionally paper-thin slices of beef quickly poached with vegetables in a water-based broth -- will cost you more than the recent price of an All Nippon Airways round-trip flight to Tokyo.
American chefs are putting shabu-shabu on their menus too, using Wagyu beef or sashimi-grade fish or foie gras.
But hot pots are by nature informal, cozy affairs, with everybody leaning over a big pot in the middle of the table, taking from it whatever they want. That's the appeal of so many Sichuan, northern Chinese and Taiwanese hot pot restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley and casual shabu-shabu joints on the Westside or in Little Tokyo. And they are easy enough to make at home that they can be impromptu meals.
A new book by chef Tadashi Ono and food journalist Harris Salat titled "Japanese Hot Pots: Comforting One-Pot Meals" has enthusiastic home cooks pulling out their enameled Dutch ovens and konbu (kelp) to make Hakata chicken or pork belly and greens hot pot. It's "the quintessential Japanese comfort food," Salat writes.
But what about five-hundred-dollar hot pot? Takayama unveiled Shaboo, his shabu-shabu restaurant, on Christmas Day in Las Vegas' $8.5-billion CityCenter. There are custom-molded individual cooking vessels; high-tech induction burners set into the tables; and ingredients such as wild bluefin tuna belly wrapped around julienned Japanese leeks, taraba crab legs from Hokkaido, sliced abalone, winter yellowtail, and beef from the Ohmi region of Japan. A supplemental dessert of white truffle ice cream costs $95. The restaurant's name is a slightly infelicitous play on the words "shabu" and "taboo." Will the "Viva Elvis" crowd go for it?
The Japanese consider shabu-shabu the highest expression of hot pot, in accordance with the culinary principle of using the freshest food, lightly cooked, beautifully presented. The closer it is to its natural state, the better to draw the most pleasure from a single thin sheet of beef.
Takayama describes the cooking method by waving his hand back and forth in the air, mimicking the motion of the meat as it is swept through the poaching liquid. "You slowly dip, cook, then dip it in sauce" -- cooking it yourself is part of the enjoyment. (Shabu-shabu means "swish-swish," referring to the way in which ingredients are cooked in the hot pot.) Traditionally this is accomplished with chopsticks, but at Shaboo with special tongs in the shape of crab claws.
The golden bowl
"I wanted solid gold pots, but the heating technology isn't available here," he says. "Maybe in two or three years. When I agreed to open this place I said I was going to buy gold bowls . . . 60 for $80,000 each."
Now I daydream about eating hot pot from a gold bowl. But Japanese cooks traditionally use a donabe, a clay vessel with a slightly rounded bottom and domed lid. And really all you need is a cast-iron Dutch oven to make hot pot at home. (Cast iron distributes and retains heat well.)
And though shabu-shabu may be the most highly regarded, there are simpler types of hot pots, called collectively nabemono -- one-pot meals that are more substantial than soup but not as thick as stew.
There are two ways to cook hot pots: at the table -- using a tabletop burner -- setting out a platter of ingredients to be cooked by guests (shabu-shabu style). Or on the stove, with the finished dish brought to the center of the table, from which the contents are ladled into small bowls, or diners can help themselves. It's de rigueur to pick up your own food from the pot with your own chopsticks.
Whatever the type, the foundation of the hot pot is the broth, which often includes dashi, a stock of konbu and dried bonito flakes. For his seafood shabu, Takayama uses a golden broth of dashi made with konbu and niboshi, or dried anchovies. The stock for his beef shabu is prepared in an eight-hour process making a consommé from konbu, niboshi, seared Ohmi beef tendon, carrots, onions, garlic, beef and chicken bones, and bay leaf.
Into the pot you can put a wide variety of meat or vegetables: slices of rib-eye, whole shrimp, salmon, chicken, lamb, mushrooms, spinach, dumplings. A friend of mine used to make a scallop sausage for hot pot from scallop mousseline with chives that was so good I'm still thinking about it years later. Greens such as mizuna, a mustard, and shungiku, the leaves of chrysanthemums, are easy to find at Asian stores and farmers markets.
A rich broth
Chef Michael Mina, who has been serving shabu-shabu of sliced abalone, shiitake mushrooms, scallions and Kobe beef rolled with spicy radishes at his latest restaurant, American Fish (also in Las Vegas' CityCenter), starts with a dashi of konbu, bonito and ginger. "Beef with dashi is really delicious," he says. "And foie gras. What that does is really fortifies the broth, leaves a lot of richness behind. When thinking about ingredients, you have to think about both how it's going to cook in the broth and what it does to the broth."
Take pork belly, for example. In a hot pot recipe from the "Japanese Hot Pots" cookbook, thin slices of pork belly are dipped into a simmering broth of dashi, mirin and soy sauce, imbuing the liquid with the rich flavor of pork. A duck gyoza nabe is made with chicken stock, mirin and konbu, enhanced by vegetables such as cabbage, negi (Japanese leeks) and shiitake and enoki mushrooms -- the chicken stock complementing the duck filling in the dumplings.
It's served with a dipping sauce of chile oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and scallions. Other condiments for shabu-shabu include gomadare (sesame sauce) and ponzu. At Shaboo, hottate scallops come with a dipping sauce of lobster bisque.
When it came to nabe cooking, my mom, a born-and-bred Tokyoite, mostly made sukiyaki. In Kanto (Tokyo area) fashion, the ingredients -- sliced beef, tofu, nappa cabbage, itokonnyaku noodles, onions, chrysanthemum leaves -- are simmered in a shallow pot of broth made with a little caramelized sugar, soy sauce and sake. (Sautéing the beef before adding the other ingredients and the broth would be Osaka-style.)
Arrange ingredients as you might a composed salad, in neat bunches. The vegetables are just cooked through and the beef added last so that it's as tender as possible. You could even cook the sliced beef shabu-shabu style at the table.
It is beefy, just slightly sweet, and warming. And it costs less than $10 per person to make, no gold bowls necessary.