Melody and I had Shabu Shabu for dinner last night. It's a little like fondue since everyone can put whatever kind of food they want into the pot, but instead of cheese (or chocolate) the liquid is a sort of broth (my mom used to do a fish stock, but I did a chicken stock last night). This picture is from 1987, and shows my dad getting ready. You can see several kinds of food on the trays and if you look closely, you can see a second pot on the near side of the table (there were several people at dinner that day).
The first time I had Shabu Shabu as a kid I was taken with the idea of being able to cook your own food. Looking back, it also felt like a more social way of having dinner. There was a span of several years when I requested it for my birthday dinner, and even though my birthday falls right in the hottest part of the year, my mom would pull out the serving platters and set up the meal. What you see in the picture wasn't all the food, since there were refills waiting in the kitchen.
My favorite Shabu Shabu dinners were when we had guests who had never had the meal before. Each was just as enchanted as I was that first time.
I seem to recall someone telling me that the reason the beef is sliced so thinly (practically paper-thin) is so you can dip it into the boiling broth, sweeping it one way and then the other, saying "Shabu Shabu" as you did it, and the meat would be cooked. We never were able to get the combination of thin slices and hot broth to do that, but it makes a nice story. The good Japanese markets know to freeze the meat enough so that you can slice it that thinly.
So what goes into Shabu Shabu? Practically anything you want. We normally did lots of greens (napa cabbage, spinach, and/or bok choy), vegetables (mushrooms, etc.), fish cake (such as kamaboko), tofu, meat (the aforementioned sliced beef, prawns). We'd end the meal by putting in some udon noodles and then invariably having a difficult time getting them out of the pot and onto our plates. My dad also liked to have rice with it; I can still hear my mom asking him if he was sure he wanted rice since we were having noodles. Like many Japanese, the ochawan would never leave his left hand during the meal, so he would pick up some food, dip it in the dipping sauce, tap it on the top of the rice, and then eat. As the meal progressed, his rice would accumulate more flavor, which could be why he wanted the rice in the first place.
After my grandmother passed away in 2000, I inherited her Shabu Shabu pot. I haven't used it that often, and we don't have large Shabu Shabu parties. But when we do pull it out, no matter how simple the layout is, I still have those childhood dinners in my mind both when preparing the ingredients and when participating in the meal.