Ah, New Year’s Eve. The night before hope pairs with prosperity, peace and – with any luck – newly acquired profits in the year to come. A time to reflect on what’s been, and what lies ahead; when time stops just long enough for that big silver ball to drop, and resolutions can be made.
Humankind has been enjoying some form of New Year’s celebration since the keeping of a calendar was coupled with convivial social function.
In America, it’s also the “amateur hour” of all-too-familiar fetes that often involve more frivolity than fortitude. Options seem limited to the usual: braving the crowds with dinner and a party out (Zzzzz), hosting a celebration of your own (what? Another party?), or spending the night on the couch with a bottle of bubbly watching the ball (or Peach) drop.
Opt for number two – and here’s why: Communal dining. You can participate in an ancient custom and start a new tradition of your own at the same time. Many cultures bring friends to the table for sundry occasions, from Asian hot pots to French fondue and Swiss raclette. The idea of cooking food together – not just dining on it – is practically Paleolithic. After all, a dinner party of this sort requires social organization. Who knew division of labor could be so fun?
Hot pots are an easy entryway into communal dining, and can involve as few as two participants or as many as 10. Purportedly inspired by the Mongolian hot pot, the table is set with a hot pot (remember that Betty Draper-esque fondue set you’ve been meaning to throw out? Now’s the time to use it), plus thinly sliced meat and a bevy of bite-sized veggies. Are there rules? Not really.
“But there are lots of traditions,” said food writer John Kessler. Former dining critic and food writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kessler was the first person who came to mind when I began to research hot pots. He lived in the Kobe region of Japan for a year, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of food, especially Asian food, and uber-especially Japanese food. The first time I ate Japanese shabu-shabu, a traditional Japanese hot pot (nabemono), was at his house. The name means “swish swish,” and references the swishing sound the meat makes as its dipped in hot broth to cook.
“Shabu-shabu is common in this region of Japan because it utilizes famous Kobe beef,” said Kessler. He recommends using a ribeye or sirloin cut for marbling, but said the Japanese are fond of lamb, too.
The idea is to heat a broth (the Japanese tradition is to flavor the broth with kelp, or kombu, but a simple vegetable broth will suffice) over a hot pot or donabe casserole. It’s easy to heat the broth on the stove first, then transfer to the tabletop for guests to cook their own meat and vegetables.
Have the meat sliced “paper thin” by your butcher, or buy it at local Asian superstores such as Super H Mart. “Most Korean barbecue spots on Buford Highway will have meat like this as well,” Kessler recommended. Make sure the meat is cut into individual pieces once it’s sliced. Create small platters of meat for each guest, as recommended by Shizuo Tsuji in his classic cookbook, “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art” (Kodansha International Ltd, 1980 and 2006 revised), or enough larger platters to distribute across the table.
From meat, move to vegetables: Chinese (napa) cabbage, sliced green onions, shiitake mushrooms, firm tofu and carrots are a must, according to Kessler, but traditional shabu-shabu will also include shirataki (bean thread noodles), fu (wheat gluten) and kikuna (edible chrysanthemum leaf), according to Tsuji. All should be cut into bite-size pieces and placed on platters for guests to reach easily.
Rice is always a part of the Japanese table, and shabu-shabu is no exception. Rice bowls are traditionally provided to eat with any broth that’s left after cooking the meat and vegetables – a “sop” in much the same way Westerners use bread with jus or gravy.
As for the pot, use a fondue pot or buy a traditional hot pot at an Asian grocery store – either will suffice. To cook at the table you’ll need a sterno, or whatever apparatus your hot pot requires.
Last, shabu-shabu is always served with dipping sauces – traditionally a citrus-y ponzu sauce and a sesame sauce. “You can buy both at Tomato, a Japanese grocery store with locations in Norcross and Marietta,” said Kessler, “but if you go the route of making your own, the trick is to use roasted sesame seeds for sesame sauce.”
It sounds a little complicated, but it’s not. Celebrate with true Japanese tradition, or interpret with your own ideas. Can’t find chrysanthemum leaves? Leave them out. Want to use chicken instead? Go for it. Don’t like rice? No worries. Once you’ve got the meat and veggies, just make (or buy) your sauces, light your pot and start swishing the New Year in.
This amount of meat and vegetables will serve four generously, but pick and choose the amounts of vegetables you desire. It’s easiest to heat the water and kelp on the stove, then transfer to the table once the kelp is removed. If you’d like to use vegetable boullion instead, be sure to add salt to taste. Japanese tradition often leaves the mushroom caps whole, with a cross hatch across the top. Slice the carrots with a vegetable peeler so that they are thin enough to cook quickly in the hot pot. Lastly, every guest should have their own sauces and chopsticks, as well as rice (if desired).
1 4-inch sheet dried kombu
Enough water to cover and fill the hot pot
2 pounds sirloin or ribeye beef, thinly sliced and cut into individual strips or rounds
1 head nappa cabbage, sliced into chunks
4 scallions, roughly sliced
8 shitake mushrooms, sliced
2 carrots, sliced thinly (optional)
1 cup firm tofu, cubed
½ bunch kikuna (optional)
Bean thread noodles (optional)
10 pieces wheat gluten (fu), soaked for 5 minutes in tepid water, then squeezed dry (optional)
Score the kombu to release flavors and place with water in a medium sauce pot; bring to a simmer over medium heat. Let the broth sit for 15 minutes, remove kelp, and transfer to the hot pot.
Arrange the table with platters of meat, vegetables and other ingredients as desired, with sauces and rice bowls if desired. Dip the meat in the simmering broth until the color turns pink. Cook meat and vegetables as desired. Sip any leftover broth with rice, if desired.
Per serving: 845 calories (percent of calories from fat, 42), 54 grams protein, 57 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams fiber, 36 grams fat (14 grams saturated), 146 milligrams cholesterol, 267 milligrams sodium.
Yield: 2½ cups
This dipping sauce is adapted from Shizuo Tsuji’s cookbook, “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art” (Kodansha International Ltd, 1980 and 2006 revised). It can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, but be sure to stir the sauce if it has settled.
3 ounces sesame seeds, toasted until light brown, then ground with a mortar and pestle
¼ cup dashi broth (purchase at Asian grocery stores, such as Tomato Japanese Grocery Store)
6 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon sugar
1-2 tablespoons sake
In a small bowl, mix all the ingredients until well blended.
Per tablespoon: 17 calories (percent of calories from fat, 57), 1 gram protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, 1 gram fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 165 milligrams sodium.
This citrus-y sauce is easily found in most supermarkets, but it’s much more flavorful when made from scratch. Leave the flavors to marinate overnight for maximum flavor. The mixture will keep in the refrigerator 3-4 days.
Yield: 2 1/2 cups
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin
1 4-inch piece kombu (available at Asian ma rkets and some super markets)
1/2 cup dried bonito flakes (available at Asian markets and some super markets
In a medium bowl, mix together the lemon juice, lime juice, rice vinegar, soy sauce, mirin, kombu and bonito flakes. Let the mixture sit, refrigerated, for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight. Strain the mixture before serving.
Per tablespoon: 11 calories (percent of calories from fat, 3), 1 gram protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), 1 milligram cholesterol, 414 milligrams sodium.