For a guy who’s been dead since the middle of the 13th century and may never have set foot in a kitchen, Genghis Khan seems to have had an outsized influence on the cuisine of Northeast Asia. From Mongolian hot pot to Korean bulgogi and Mongolian barbecue, Khan’s conquests and the exigencies of feeding his conquering armies have shaped many a regional dish or, at the very least, their promotional backstory. Add shabu shabu to the list.
Shabu shabu is a Japanese variation on hot pot in which nearly translucent slices of beef are dipped into a boiling broth of vegetables, kombu seaweed and tofu. While a case could be made for the notion that Khan had something to do with the origin of hot pot—using a single pot to feed an army that’s conserving scarce fuel resources—his connection to shabu shabu is more doubtful. The first references to shabu shabu came from the 20th century at Suehiro restaurant (which trademarked the term in 1955) in Osaka, Japan.
One of the best places to get shabu shabu in San Diego is at Shabu World (3904 Convoy St., Suite 117, in Kearny Mesa). The dish has five basic parts: broth, meat, vegetables, rice and noodles. Indeed, one of the joys of shabu shabu is that it’s two dishes in one. First, the diner cooks vegetables in the broth on a tabletop stove, dipping them in a ponzu sauce (optionally spiked with chopped scallions, minced daikon and garlic). As the broth cooks the vegetables, it takes on their flavor. Soon the meat arrives and that, too, is dipped and cooked in the broth. “Shabu shabu” is an onomatopoeia referring to the sound the cooking meat makes. Supposedly, it also refers to the exact length of time it takes to cook. As the vegetables and meat disappear, the diner adds noodles to the broth and shabu shabu becomes an udon experience.
At Shabu World, there are four choices of broth. The most traditional is simply water and kombu. My favorite is the spicy option—though “spicy” here has less to do with heat (the rather angry color notwithstanding) than a broader flavor spectrum with hints of sweetness and just a touch of heat. The miso option tastes a lot like the familiar soup. The sukiyaki broth, derived from the classic Japanese dish of the same name, is another good choice.
Shabu World also offers a variety of meat options. The prime beef is well worth the extra money, but both the choice beef and pork are good, too. As important as the meat is to the dish, the vegetables are perhaps its great glory: Napa cabbage, broccoli, carrots, spinach, enoki mushrooms and tofu. The vegetables are resoundingly fresh. The Napa cabbage, for example, doesn’t have even a hint of the bitterness that is the tell of over-the-hill Napa cabbage.
Shabu World’s dining experience is one part tasty, one part fun and well worth a try—even if shabu shabu is zero parts Genghis Khan.