What is the difference between shabu-shabu and sukiyaki?

Shabu-shabu and sukiyaki are two popular Japanese hot pot dishes that are often confused with each other. While they share some similarities, there are distinct differences between these two dishes.

What is Shabu-Shabu?

Shabu-shabu is a Japanese hot pot dish where thin slices of meat and vegetables are swished around in a pot of boiling broth until cooked. The term “shabu-shabu” refers to the swishing sound the ingredients make as they are cooked in the bubbling broth.

To make shabu-shabu, a pot of broth is brought to a boil at the table. The broth is usually a light konbu dashi or chicken broth, but can also be made with ponzu or sesame sauce. Thinly sliced beef is the most common protein used, but pork, chicken, seafood, and vegetables like cabbage, mushrooms, carrots, and tofu can also be cooked in the broth.

Each person at the table takes turns using their chopsticks to swish the ingredients in the boiling broth until they are cooked to their desired doneness, typically just a few seconds. The cooked ingredients are then briefly dipped in a sauce before eating. Popular dipping sauces for shabu-shabu include sesame sauce, ponzu, and grated daikon radish.

Shabu-shabu is considered more of a delicate cooking process compared to sukiyaki. The thin slices cook quickly in the broth, resulting in tender meat and crispy-tender vegetables. The light broth also allows the natural flavors of the ingredients to shine.

What is Sukiyaki?

Sukiyaki is another Japanese hot pot dish, but one that uses thicker slices of meat and vegetables cooked in a sweet soy sauce broth. Sukiyaki is named after the cooking pot used to make it – “suki” means plow or spade and “yaki” means grilled or fried.

For sukiyaki, the ingredients are added to a shallow cast iron pot filled with a warmed sauce made from soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and dashi. The ingredients are slowly simmered together so the sweet soy broth permeates the food. Thinly sliced beef is most common, but chicken, tofu, vegetables like negi, mushrooms, and shirataki noodles are also used.

Unlike shabu-shabu, the ingredients for sukiyaki are added in stages and cooked for longer to soak up the flavors of the sauce. The ingredients are also stirred frequently with chopsticks so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. Once everything is cooked, the pot of sukiyaki is brought to the table for everyone to enjoy dipping the cooked food into raw beaten eggs before eating.

The longer cooking time in the sweet soy sauce gives sukiyaki a more robust, complex flavor compared to the lighter broth taste of shabu-shabu. The thick slices also have a heartier texture.

Key Differences Between Shabu-Shabu and Sukiyaki

Shabu-Shabu Sukiyaki
Thin slices of meat and vegetables Thicker slices of meat and vegetables
Cooked very briefly in light broth Simmered for longer in sweet soy sauce
Swishing motion used to cook ingredients Ingredients stirred frequently while simmering
Dip in sesame sauce, ponzu, etc. before eating Dip in beaten raw egg before eating
More delicate, subtle flavors Richer, heartier flavor

While both dishes involve cooking meat and vegetables in a hot pot at the table, the main differences come down to cooking time, broth/sauce, ingredient preparation, cooking method, and flavor.

Shabu-Shabu Broth vs. Sukiyaki Sauce

One of the biggest differences between shabu-shabu and sukiyaki is the type of liquid used to cook the ingredients.

Shabu-shabu uses a light broth that is typically:

  • Konbu dashi – broth made from dried kelp
  • Chicken broth
  • Vegetable broth
  • Pork broth
  • Seafood broth

The shabu-shabu broth usually doesn’t have a very strong flavor on its own. It provides moisture and heat to quickly cook the thin slices of ingredients while allowing their natural flavors to come through.

Sukiyaki, on the other hand, uses a sweet and salty sauce made by combining:

  • Soy sauce
  • Mirin – sweet Japanese rice wine
  • Sugar
  • Dashi stock

This umami-rich sauce permeates the ingredients as they slowly simmer together. The sauce also thickens and caramelizes on the bottom of the sukiyaki pot, forming a crust that adds texture and complexity of flavor.

Cooking Methods

In addition to the different liquids used, shabu-shabu and sukiyaki also employ different cooking techniques.

Shabu-shabu is all about the quick swishing motion. The thin slices of meat and vegetables only need to be submerged in the hot broth for a few seconds before they are ready to eat. Swishing the ingredients continuously in the broth results in tender textures.

For sukiyaki, the thicker ingredient slices are added in stages to simmer slowly in the sauce. The ingredients are carefully stirred with chopsticks to evenly coat in the sauce without sticking to the bottom. The longer cooking time results in extremely tender beef and vegetables infused with sweet and salty flavors.

Ingredient Preparation

Shabu-shabu and sukiyaki also call for preparing the ingredients differently before cooking.

For shabu-shabu, the meat and vegetables are cut into very thin slices, usually around 1/8″ thick. Common ingredients prepared for shabu-shabu include:

  • Thinly sliced beef – ribeye, sirloin, wagyu
  • Thinly sliced pork
  • Thin slices of cabbage, bok choy, chrysanthemum leaves
  • Shiitake or enoki mushrooms
  • Tofu skins
  • Udon noodles

The thin slices cook almost instantly in the broth. This results in tender, melt-in-your-mouth textures without overcooking.

For sukiyaki, the ingredient slices are cut around 1⁄4″ thick. Some commonly used sukiyaki ingredients are:

  • Thin slices of wagyu or ribeye beef
  • Firm tofu blocks
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Negi leeks
  • Napa cabbage
  • Konnyaku noodles
  • Shirataki noodles

The thicker slices hold up to the longer cooking time and absorb the sweet soy sauce flavors.

Flavor Profiles

The lighter broth and quick cooking method of shabu-shabu produces more subtle, delicate flavors. The thin slices have a tender texture, but the beef still has a slight chew. You taste more of the pure flavors of the beef and vegetables.

In sukiyaki, the longer cooking time melds the sweet soy sauce deep into the ingredients. This results in a richer, heartier flavor profile. The beef comes out extremely soft and tender with a melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Sauces for Dipping

The sauces served with shabu-shabu and sukiyaki for dipping the cooked ingredients also differ.

Popular dipping sauces served with shabu-shabu include:

  • Sesame sauce – made with sesame paste and soy sauce
  • Ponzu – citrus seasoned soy sauce
  • Scallion oil
  • Garlic soy sauce
  • Grated daikon radish
  • Momiji oroshi – grated daikon and red chili peppers

These light sauces complement the delicate flavors of the ingredients cooked in the shabu-shabu broth.

The most common dipping sauce for sukiyaki is raw beaten egg. The cooked sukiyaki ingredients are dipped in the creamy egg before eating. This adds richness and balance to the salty-sweet flavors of the sukiyaki sauce.

Other dipping options for sukiyaki can include:

  • Ponzu
  • Scallions
  • Grated ginger

But the beaten raw egg is considered essential to complete the sukiyaki experience.

Conclusion

Shabu-shabu and sukiyaki are two types of Japanese hot pot, but they differ in several key ways:

  • Shabu-shabu uses a light broth while sukiyaki uses a sweet soy sauce.
  • Ingredients are cut thin for shabu-shabu and thicker for sukiyaki.
  • Shabu-shabu ingredients are swished in the broth while sukiyaki ingredients are simmered.
  • Shabu-shabu has a delicate flavor while sukiyaki is richer.
  • Shabu-shabu is dipped in ponzu and sesame sauce while sukiyaki is dipped in egg.

So in summary:

  • Shabu-shabu = quick cooking swished in broth + ponzu sauce
  • Sukiyaki = simmering in sweet soy + dipping in egg

While both dishes involve cooking at the table in a shared pot, shabu-shabu and sukiyaki offer two very different Japanese hot pot experiences.

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