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What is Shabu Shabu?

Michael Pollick
Updated Feb 27, 2024
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Shabu shabu, alternatively spelled syabu syabu, is a Japanese culinary dish which descended from the Mongolian tradition of nabemono, or 'one pot' cooking. When serving this dish, thin slices of beef are placed in a communal pot of boiling water and swished back and forth until cooked. Vegetables such as mushrooms, cabbage, watercress and spring chrysanthemums are also boiled briefly and dipped in various sauces. Shabu shabu is similar to another nabemone dish called sukiyaki, but the sauces used are not as sweet.

Shabu shabu roughly translates to "swish swish," referring to the sound made as the sliced meat passes through the water. Although beef was the first meat to be used in this dish, modern Japanese restaurants may also offer sliced pork, duck, lobster, crab or chicken. The water may be seasoned with a type of kelp, which is removed just before service begins. Many shabu shabu restaurants use a round fondue-like pot in the center of the table to allow multiple diners the opportunity to prepare their own food.

It is believed that the legendary Mongol leader Genghis Khan developed a rudimentary form of shabu shabu in order to conserve fuel during military campaigns. Soldiers would gather around large containers of boiling water in order to cook their rations of beef or other game meats. This communal cooking idea would eventually come to Japan through Chinese and Mongolian immigrants.

In the film Lost in Translation, actors Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson can be seen dining in a traditional Japanese shabu shabu restaurant. A small circular pan of boiling water is located in the center of the table. Both characters remark on the similarity of the menu items, which all appear to be identical plates of sliced beef. This is something all diners should realize when ordering. Most of the time your choices are limited to portion sizes or type of meat. The rest of the meal generally consists of a standard tray of vegetables and steamed rice. Occasionally a soup will be made from the cooking water and served last.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGEEK, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By Oceana — On Jun 20, 2011

Teriyaki sauce is my favorite dipping sauce for shabu shabu food. The sweet and savory mixture of teriyaki goes brilliantly with the light vegetables and thin meats.

By Windchime — On Jun 20, 2011

In my local shabu shabu house they serve each person with an individual pot of soup. That's perfect for me, a confirmed germophobe!

I hope this is a style of service that spreads to more restaurants, as I struggle with the whole concept of double dipping.

By Acracadabra — On Jun 20, 2011

@Bakersdozen - I love shabu shabu hotpot, especially when the meat is a little fatty. You don't need to worry about it being raw after dipping, it's cut so thin that it cooks in seconds. If you were worried you could always leave it in the broth a little longer than usual.

By Bakersdozen — On Jun 20, 2011

My friend swears by the food at a shabu shabu place in Los Angeles. She makes a fairly long trip about once a month to eat there and has invited me several times.

I've avoided it because I really didn't understand what it actually was, though I have a better idea now after reading this article.

I'm still puzzled about how cooked the meat is after this swishing through hot water. Is it safe to eat?

By Sara007 — On Jun 20, 2011

If you want a great, healthy meal that you can make at home, finding a good shabu shabu recipe can be a godsend. I find that because so many of the vegetables are to taste that you can really customize shabu shabu to your family’s enjoyment.

One of my favorite things to use is a big deep skillet that can hold all of my ingredients. When I have that filled with enough boiling water I add thinly sliced beef, 1 block of chopped tofu, Chinese cabbage, a leek, shiitake mushrooms, instant noodles and carrots.

I find that because of the one pot idea I can make as much or as little as I want, so I don't really use measurements when I make shabu shabu at home, just whatever looks right to me.

By manykitties2 — On Jun 20, 2011

I remember my first visit to a shabu shabu restaurant and it was a real treat. I didn't know that they actually had you prepare the soup yourself and they just provided the ingredients.

The restaurant was fun and actually provided us with little instructional cards so we knew what to put in first and how long to cook everything for. It was exciting to take part in the cooking process of something from another country when I am normally not much of a cook.

I found that shabu shabu is a fantastic choice if you want to give someone a unique experience. The soup is easy to make and the delicate cuts of beef you can use in the soup taste amazing.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick

As a frequent contributor to WiseGEEK, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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