I’ve written before about shabu shabu, the Japanese hotpot that’s very popular here in Korea.
Of course, the Korean version has its own twists. Traditionally, Japanese shabu shabu is cooked by swishing thin slices of beef in a pot of boiling water, but that would be a little too bland for people used to the Korean diet of fire and spice. Here, the pot in the centre of the table is filled with soup rather than water, and there are lots of other extras that vary from one restaurant to the next.
My absolute favourite shabu shabu place is a little sit-on-the-floor restaurant in downtown Daejeon. I thought it might be interesting (you decide!) to talk you through the meal, as it’s so different from anything I’d ever experienced before I came here – and it’s a great illustration of the way the food just keeps coming at Korean restaurants. Seriously, I still don’t understand how my petite colleagues remain so svelte.
So, the specialty of this fabulous little restaurant is duck. Duck! One of my favourites, and not all that common around here. When you sit down, your table is almost instantly covered with the usual banchan (side dishes), like kimchi and corn and leafy things. Each person is also presented with a plate divided into compartments for various tasty sauces, and a cute little serving spoon.
Then come the huge plates laden with raw veggies such as bean sprouts, mushrooms, onions, carrots, and cucumber.
Last but not least, two separate platefuls of raw meat. One is the thinly sliced beef to go in the shabu shabu pot; the other is the delicious duck for the grill.
Yes, grill! You chuck your meat into the central pot of broth, and then while it’s bubbling away there you arrange your duck slices on the grill that runs around it.
Soon they’re sizzling away, and there’s an ajumma pouring hot red water into the circular pans sticking out of the grill. This was mildly confusing to me the first time I experienced it, as were the odd plastic discs sitting in their little holders on the table.
As it turned out, the discs were in fact rice paper pancakes. Oh, it’s about to get so frickin’ good! As the shabu shabu boils and the duck cooks (there’s a little rack on the side of the grill to pile up the cooked pieces so they stay warm but don’t burn), you start preparing your first pancake. The pancakes really do feel like plastic, but that’s where the red water comes in. You dip the hard, flat disc into it, and when you bring it back out… ta-daa!
It has miraculously transformed into a wafer-thin, transparent pancake, which you spread out on your plate and proceed to heap high with your favourite vegetables and sauces. The finishing touch: a slice or two of the sizzling duck.
Then you just wrap it all up, and eat with a series of mmmmmm noises (and sauce all over your fingers, if you’re like me). It is one of my all-time favourite meals, possibly even better than my original favourite, the Chinese-style crispy shredded duck with hoisin sauce version. And that’s saying a lot.
So anyway, eventually all the duck has been devoured and it’s time to get bate intae the soup, as they’d say back home. A ladle and bowls are provided, and they will regularly come round with a broth-filled kettle to check that your shabu shabu pot doesn’t need a top-up.
But that’s not all! When most of the meat and vegetables have been transferred from pot to tummies, that’s when an ajumma will appear with a huge plateful of noodles, which she will cheerfully (or not… you know ajummas) throw into the remaining broth. A few minutes later, you’re sitting with a big bowl of brothy noodles, despite having basically had two dinners by this stage.
They’re delicious, though, so you slurp them down and then sit back to rest.
But wait! What’s this?! The ajumma is returning with more food?!! You can only watch in amazement, clutching your swollen belly, as she proceeds to make a sort of savoury porridge with the tiny remainder of the broth. Nothing must be wasted! In go some finely-chopped vegetables mixed with rice, and I think I saw an egg being cracked in there for good measure last time, too, and it all gets briskly stirred and pounded into a gloopy yellow mixture that looks decidedly unappealing, but tastes great.
Meanwhile, of course, throughout this dinner that seems to have been going on for a week and a half, your soju glass has been constantly refilled and your legs have cramped from sitting on the floor. By the time you stagger to your feet you’ve got pins and needles and a boozy glow on your cheeks, and you weigh about 10 pounds more than you did when you sat down.
And that, my dears, is my kind of meal.