In Japan, they like food to be as fresh as possible. That preference defines the teppanyaki steakhouses, DIY okonomiyaki pancake spots and ikizukuri, seafood served and eaten while the heart beats on.
So it's not surprising the Japanese have their own versions of the hot pot self-serve soups you find across East Asia.
In Japan, soup that bubbles at the center of a family table is called nabemono, and there are many variations. The one you're most likely to spot in Portland is called shabu shabu. It's a lot like familiar Chinese hot pots, except the boiling broth is made with kombu, or kelp, and is very simple to start with, picking up flavors from the cooking leeks, chrysanthemum leaf, tofu and napa cabbage.
Until recently, the only shabu shabu in town was low-grade stuff served at spots that also make California rolls. But, in November, Pono Farm Soul Kitchen upped the ante with a reservation-only shabu shabu service that uses exceptional meat from its family farm in central Oregon. For $35, you get a platter of meat ranched by Pono Farm and fresh produce acquired by trading its beef at the farmers market on Saturdays.
Pono's regular menu is inconsistent, but the thin-sliced rib-eye in its shabu shabu is the best beef I've eaten this year.
"All of the parties that come in, you can tell just by the head nod as soon as they eat the meat," says co-owner Ellen Chien. "They just eat it and, 'Wow.'"
This is the first time Pono, which also has a restaurant in Bend, has offered shabu shabu. But Chien and co-owner Ted Nakato have a lot of experience with it.
"That's actually our Thanksgiving meal," says Chien, who is from Taiwan. "We don't do turkey, we gather around the hot pot. With the winter season coming, we figured it'd be something new to try and a great way to present our meat."
"In Asian culture, a lot of people like to eat in that type of setting," says Nakato, of Japanese descent. "A lot of families, they grow up eating shabu shabu or sukiyaki in the winter time. It's something that you grow up eating."
In Japan, shabu shabu is so common that butcher cases typically offer pre-sliced cuts, says Nakato, showing a photo on his phone as proof.
"The hardest part is slicing the meats," he says. "No one at home is going to have a slicer like that, so buying it pre-cut is important. In Japan, they would like to eat really good meat in small portions, sliced thinly, rather than a big steak."
The key to cooking that meat is to dip in the boiling broth until the pink starts to disappear. Don't let go of it, Chien cautions, and don't let it cook through. Aim for medium rare, like a steak. With lesser meats at hot pot spots, I'm not so precious. But at Pono, I became focused on the ritual dunking, then gave the meat only the briefest of baths in the soy served on the side.
For those accustomed to Chinese hot pot, there are a few other twists, like the emphasis on the final broth. Pono finishes its shabu shabu by adding rice to make a soup. It even offers an optional $10 upgrade to spike that final broth with mushrooms—black trumpet, yellowfoot, hedgehog, maitake and the like—and make it extra, extra savory.
"In Japanese cuisine, they want to end the meal with a starch, either rice or noodles," says Nakato. "So with a lot of these hot pot dishes, they add either rice or noodle at the very end to finish the meal."
To me, this seemed unnecessary. So we passed on the upgrade. But given the surprise of that steak, maybe that was a mistake.