Have you had Shabu Shabu or Chinese Hot Pot? I did! Read about it with me!

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I gotta say, Shabu Shabu (japanese style) and Chinese Hot Pot have become my most favorite way to eat in Asia. This concept is brilliant! If I was in the restaurant business, I would consider attempting to open one of these kinds of places in America. Who knows if it would take off? Certainly not with the amount of questionables offered at some of these Chinese style places. But with culturally acceptable offerings, I think it could take off. The business model is interesting. There are no cooks. You cook the food.

A boiling pot of flavor-selected soup broth is placed in the center of the table over top of a burner. The pot is designed so that two separate broth styles can accommodate the customer, typically a spicy side, and a neutral side. The soup boils all the selections in a matter of a minute of two, depending on what you toss in. There are two styles: all you can eat and ala carte. Both have their advantages.

sauce-bliss-in-japan.jpgThere is a sauce bar! A SAUCE BAR!?! OK, now you have my attention. I can't help but consider most food worthless to the tongue without some assistance from the condiment repertoire. I find the sauce options tantalizing! Some of the standards being soy sauce, ginger & garlic paste, sesame oil, and peanut sauce. Then I find the complex stuff: spicy beef sauce, lamb delight, shrimp paste with spicy peppers. Most things have red crushed pepper in them, which lights my fancy. I don't know what I would do at one of these joints if I didn't like spicy food, although there seemed to be many options, as one of my hosts cannot eat spicy food, but had no trouble stuffing his face like a champ.

The meat comes. We selected Wagyu, a top quality australian beef. It is wrapped raw and looks like deli meat, marbeled slightly and balanced with fat and red protein. A massive array of vegetables accent the soup dish. Some secondary items are tossed in for flavor, like quarter crab sections. I spoon one out and think about how the hell I am going to get the meat out of the center of this thing with chopsticks, avoiding the obvious tripe. I dig around, fervently looking for that juicy morsel. I'm not sure if I find it. My host sees me struggle and tells me that is added to the soup just for flavor. I toss it aside and dig deeper.

There is a perforated holy soup spoon to dig out your delectables, along with a solid spoon if you want to toss in noodles or rice and have a porridge or ramen-style moment. The diversity of tactile experience comes to my periphery. With one scoop I procure for myself some tasty Wagyu, alongside a chew-toy with holes and tentacles. I haven't utensiled with both hands often, but the art of scooping soup-solids, and removing undesirables with chopsticks (with the opposing hand) quickly becomes a normal activity. The pile on my "no thank you" plate begins to grow, and I wonder when it will be noticed. I look around at my guest's eating space. They seem to have mastered the art of getting solids into their sauce bowl or into their mouth without making a mess. My table is saturated, and my beer is at risk of sliding. My host are surprised that I am proficient with chopsticks, but I contemplate how many napkins I have gone through just to keep my face from dripping. I don't see any piles of paper in front of anyone else. Plates are not provided, nor are they requested. They ask if I want one. Of course I say no, but end up sneaking one in front of me anyway when no one is looking. I think to myself, "How the heck do they do it? Is there some brilliant vacuum-like knock-off installed under those squared off nostrils on the upper lip that prevents liquids from falling?" That's why I grow facial hair, you know, for a flavor savor sponge. But these people don't have hair, and they don't have a mess on the table. I can't help but laugh at my slobbery. I chalk it up to lack of experience and grab another napkin.

Plate upon plate of raw veggies, meat, and seafood continue to present themselves at the table. Some are on skewers. One looks like chicken. I ask. It's chicken. "Which part?" I request. The translator points to his ribs. Great! I bring myself immediately back to that time in Colombia at the emerald mines when they served us chicken for lunch. It's a mining town, and there's no time to waste. Who raises chickens in a mining town? No one . They had to get chicken from the neighboring village. But I don't think it wasn't mature enough to eat\. They bowl the chicken with all the innards and toss it all out on the table on a big piece of paper with a bunch of rice, kind of like a Low Country Boil. I remember getting a chicken-part in my mouth, thinking it was some strange vegetable, but realizing soon after that it was a lung. Yeah, not again.

Rib-meat sounds good! Its skewered on a flat chopstick. We place them in the boiling broth. When it seems like enough time has passed for the sinews to have individualized, I bring the stick to my mouth and pull a rib off. It doesn't chew. At all. I put the stick down and take the rib out of my mouth and rotate it, attempting to find something edible. No luck. Maybe its just for flavor? I attempt one last time, upon which I curse under my breath and toss it onto my no-thank-you plate and cover it with a napkin. "Maybe you cannot accept that," the translator says as he sees me cover it. I pass the skewer over to him and he proceeds to gnaw. I pretend to fish around in the hot pot, rather a distraction as I am really watching this guy out of the periphery of my right eye, trying not to stare. I can't describe well what this guy did to these chicken ribs. A combination of slurps and chomps, teeth sharpening like a dog that gets a fresh bone. He goes through the skewer in two minutes flat. At least 5 ribs. I ponder what zombie apocalypse might look like in China and unconsciously slide my chair a few inches away from the guy.

Meat boils in 60 seconds, and the fat collects on the side of the boil. One host systematically removes the fat from our soup and puts it to one side. When the soup boils low, the waitress comes to fill it up again, aptly timed while one host is off procuring another round of sauce bliss. He returns to see the full soup pot and his face droops. I ask him what's wrong. He says he has been waiting for the soup to boil down so that he could add rice and make a porridge, particularly since all the meat fat and juice has boiled off in the soup. Adding broth should be an inquiry, not a standard procedure. He proceeds to pull broth from the mild side of the hot pot to the spicy side, diluting my enjoyment. He pours in a bowl of rice and gets up to pour himself a soda. I think to myself, all I have to do is eat a little out of the mild side, and half of the liquid will end up on the table, and his porridge will be ready faster. I saturate my fifth napkin, and shove it under my plate.

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A lady at the table tosses some seafood into our shared spicy broth. I can't discern what it is. In China, "seafood" means "you see, its food." I think it's like the "Other" category on a multiple choice test. Or rather, "All of The Above". I'm staring at newly arrived plates, wondering which side of the hot pot they are going into. I do see some tentacles. Maybe it's octopus? Squid? Maybe it's Fukushima? I have no idea. I think it's time to get the waitress to remove my maybe-no-accept plate. I foresee filling up another one soon if I have the great misfortune of reeling in more chew-toys. I start to think that pecking at the broth with chopsticks rather than with my holy spoon might be a better safety protocol.

Another plate of seafood arrives. It's one solid square mass of meat. They say its lobster. I think they mean shrimp. Whatever it is, the amount of effort that must have taken place to extract this amount of meat from shellfish, and then chop it up to press into this block, is quite impressive. They ask if I can accept. Sure, why not! I think I am safe here. I let it boil extra long, biding my time procuring mushrooms and bok choys and browned wagyu. I start to look for the lobster. I can't seem it find any. I finally see a piece boil to the surface. I try and catch it. I feel like Daniel-san trying to catch a fly in mid air, with Mr Miyagi next to Obi Wan Kenobi who is standing there holographically telling me to "Use the Force Rusty." I've caught a fly in mid-air before with chop sticks. I swear I did. Ask my wife! I visualize myself standing on one leg in the crane pose, about to put my foot in the mouth of that shrimp and end this one-sided battle. It's a fail! That lobster-fly has studied way more Kung Fu than me, and I wonder if I should order some aptly named tea and go do some more wax-on-wax-offs.

The wagyu disappears fast from my broth. The host, quite aware at this point of my can-not-accept boundaries attitude, orders more meat. I excuse myself to again find delight in a refill at the Sauce-Bliss station. I take more time to study them this time. Spicy Shrimp Sauce. Lamb Sauce. Beef Sauce. I wonder to myself if these are specific sauces designed for each type of meat? It seems that there is meat contained in each one. I feel slightly awkward and look around to see who is in my immediate vicinity. I spoon up from the bottom and lean in, attempting to get my nose close to the spoon without violating the entire shared sauce with a stray beard hair. I smell a few of them. They seem to be ok. I'm not quite sure at this point if I should mix all the sauces together, or attempt to enjoy them individually. I look around to see what others are doing. Evidently it's a one stop shop. There's hardly enough room left on the table for anything else, so rather than get multiple bowls, I mix it all together and hope for the best. Kind of like the seafood category. All of the Above.

I add three or four unknown sauces (with very generic english words describing them) together in one bowl, hoping that not a one of them will be that dreadful dirty-sock moth ball concoction. I return to the table, where plate upon plate of easily distinguishable meat have arrived. I take a dip in the broth pool with my Holy spoon, scooping from the bottom. Up comes some mushroom, a piece of beef, a tentacle, and a small piece of lobster. I chopstick the lobster out of the spoon and toss it into my sauce-bliss. It has been in the hot pot at this point for at least ten minutes, only 1 of which is required for it to fully cook. In it goes. I chew, but don't feel like I am meeting any resistance with my teeth. I press it between the roof of my mouth and my tongue, and it falls apart. It's unlike any shrimp meat I have ever eaten, not quite like soft-serve ice cream, but quite far from needing to be chewed.

The sauce-bliss concoction ignites my pallet. Garlic, sesame, mince of who knows how many mammals, and WOW thats hot.. I love it!!!! I wonder if Customs would give me a hard time if I brought home a quart of this stuff. Then I think about how many others bring their noses down to smell each sauce. Probably not many, but the common nostrils are big and square, and everything is spicy. A combination that leaves my imagination wandering. I resign to maybe recreate them on my own one day...

The hot pot boils down. Porridge-man is happy and slurps like a champ. Most of the seafood is gone. There's some beef and lamb meat left on the table, but at this stage, we are all slowing down tremendously. The restaurant is completely enclosed by glass walls. There's a line of people sitting outside on stools waiting for a table to open up. I see quite a few of them staring at us, like dogs waiting for left-overs. They are eager. No one inside seems to care. We finish our meal and slowly get up. Within less than a minute the table is seated with another party, quite efficiently.

Another successful meal with stories to tell! I hope one day to find a killer Shabu Shabu restaurant in America. Despite the number of questionables, it truly is an experience to delight!


Love, Rusty

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