Shabu-shabu vs. sukiyaki | Both hot pot dishes but with a different twist
Japanese hot pot is an exciting dining experience.
Many dishes are cooked in nabemono style, which means that everything is cooked in one big pot at the table, and the diners all cook and eat their meals together.
Shabu-shabu is a dish where beef, tofu, and vegetables are cooked together on a tabletop stove in an umami kombu dashi broth.
Sukiyaki is a tasty dish, which is also cooked at the table. It consists of beef, tofu, and vegetables simmered in an iron pot in a soy, mirin, and sugar sauce.
Both dishes are similar, but shabu shabu has a soupy consistency, whereas sukiyaki is more like a stew.
There’s nothing quite like cooking your own tasty food at the table. Let’s take a closer look at these two most famous Japanese hot pot dishes and see how they differ.
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 What is shabu-shabu?
- 2 What is sukiyaki?
- 3 Shabu-shabu vs. sukiyaki: what’s the difference?
- 4 Takeaway
What is shabu-shabu?
Shabu-shabu is actually an onomatopoeic name that refers to the swish swash sound of the ingredients stirring in the hot pot.
Since it’s a hot pot dish, everyone sits around a table that is fitted with a small stove. Everyone cooks the food and eats together, so it’s a form of communal dining.
Ingredients of shabu-shabu
Shabu-shabu is traditionally cooked in a donabe (土鍋) which is an earthenware pot. The broth is an umami flavored kombu dashi stock.
Kombu dashi is made of kelp, and it is a vegetarian broth.
Then there are two or more plates of ingredients that you can cook. The most common meats are thinly sliced marbled beef and pork.
The thinner the meat slices, the better because they cook faster. However, you can also cook fish as part of shabu-shabu and it’s equally tasty.
There is also a plate of vegetables and mushrooms which add lots of flavors. Here are the most common veggies for shabu-shabu:
- Napa cabbage
- Shungiko greens (chrysanthemum leaves)
- Tong ho (Chinese herb)
- Negi onion
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Enoki mushrooms
- Shimeji mushrooms
Shabu-shabu dippings sauces
Shabu-shabu is not complete without delicious dipping sauces.
Usually, there are two great options: ponzu sauce and sesame sauce. Ponzu is a citrus-flavored sauce, and sesame is typically mild. Some people also prefer a spicy chili sauce.
Shabu-shabu dining experience
Having shabu-shabu at a Japanese restaurant is one of the most exciting and fun dining experiences.
The great thing is that the restaurant provides meats, vegetables, condiments, and seasonings. Then you can cook them and season them according to your preferences.
The secret to a tasty shabu-shabu beef is not to overcook the meat. Therefore, you should dip the beef in the boiling broth and let it simmer but not for too long.
The meat stays tender and juicy, and then immediately dip it in the dipping sauces for maximum flavor.
What is sukiyaki?
Sukiyaki (すき焼き) is considered to be a bold hot pot dish with a stronger flavor than shabu-shabu.
Very thin slices of marbled beef are simmered in a sweet and savory soy broth. Usually, the beef is seared first before the vegetables, and other ingredients are stirred in, so the meat is more flavorful, and this is called Kansai-style sukiyaki.
In Kanto-style, you simmer all the ingredients at the same time after you make the sauce.
In Japan, the sukiyaki ingredients are dipped in raw egg; however, in America, restaurants cannot serve raw egg.
Just like shabu-shabu, the best sukiyaki is made with thin slices of marbled and slightly fatty beef.
Then you have a variety of vegetables and mushrooms and some tofu.
It is sweet and savory, or umami, as the Japanese would call it. But, it is delicious, and you can really feel the taste of it compared to the dashi broth used for shabu-shabu.
Shirataki noodles which are thin konjaku starch noodles are also part of the dish, and they absorb the tasty juices of the soy-based sauce.
Tofu is also an important part of sukiyaki, along with mushrooms and vegetables. Here are the common ingredients in sukiyaki:
- Napa cabbage
- Bok choy
- Shirataki noodles
- Spring onions
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Long onion (Negi)
- Enoki mushrooms
- Chrysanthemum leaves (shungiko)
- Tong ho
- Grilled or broiled tofu
- Raw egg (in Japan only), or you can use a poached egg.
Sukiyaki dipping sauces
As I mentioned before, the sukiyaki sauce is quite flavorful but having a side dipping sauce is common too.
A common sauce is sesame sauce, and it is mild.
Another popular sauce option is made of dried ground-up shrimp, bean curd, garlic, roasted peanuts, shallots, chili peppers, vinegar, paprika, sugar, and sesame oil. It is a spicy seafood sauce that packs a flavorful punch.
Sukiyaki dining experience
There are two ways to cook sukiyaki. The first is called Kansai-style (from the Osaka region), and the second is Kanto style (from the Tokyo area).
For Kansai sukiyaki, it’s important to sear the meat first with some sugar, soy sauce, and sake. Then after the beef is seared, you can start adding tofu, vegetables, and mushrooms.
With Kanto-style sukiyaki, you make the sauce first and then cook the beef and vegetables together at the same time. It’s all up to your personal preference.
Shabu-shabu vs. sukiyaki: what’s the difference?
Sukiyaki and shabu-shabu are similar foods because they are both hot pot dishes that are cooked in a large pot on a tabletop stove.
Also, in both dishes, the meat (mostly beef) is sliced into paper-thin slices. Sukiyaki beef is slightly thicker than shabu-shabu beef, but the slices are supposed to be very thin.
The difference lies in the cooking method and some of the ingredients used. For shabu-shabu, the food is cooked in an earthenware pot called donabe, and for sukiyaki, it’s a cast-iron pot.
Sukiyaki is cooked more in a skillet style, and the meat is slowly simmered in savory soy, mirin, and sugar broth. The dish has a distinct and robust flavor.
On the other hand, Shabu-shabu is cooked in a kombu dashi broth, and it’s almost like a soup. It has a very savory flavor, and it’s not as sweet as sukiyaki.
The meat in shabu-shabu is parboiled in the dashi stock, and it’s not as cooked as the meat in sukiyaki.
For the latter, the beef is very much cooked through because it’s simmered or grilled first in the sweet and salty sauce.
Shabu-shabu vs. sukiyaki: side dishes
An interesting difference is that when you eat sukiyaki, you eat udon noodles near the end of the meal. Even if you’ve had shirataki noodles already, it’s custom to eat the udon noodles too!
With shabu-shabu, you can enjoy plain steamed rice as a side dish throughout the meal.
But tradition also calls for people to add noodles like thin glass ones called harusame or thick udon noodles at the end of the meal when there’s lots of saucy broth leftover.
Learn more about Japanese Noodles (8 Different Types of With Recipes)
Shabu-shabu vs. sukiyaki: similar dining experience
Japanese hot pot is called “nabe,” which is the word for hot pot. Nabemono refers to the hot pot style of cooking and eating.
The overarching term encompasses various stew-like dishes where meat and vegetables are simmered and boiled in a rich and flavorful broth.
Hot pot originates in China but was adopted in Japan too.
Many Japanese restaurants allow diners to cook their own food. Some also provide a host or hostess who cooks you food for you, tableside.
Japanese hot pot is all about enjoying the dining experience with your friends and family. But, if you’re not sure how to cook the food, it’s best to let the chef or host do it, so you don’t overcook everything.
Each person can add the meat, tofu, and vegetables into the hot pot and cook them. Then using chopsticks, you take out your portion and eat it on your own plate.
You have the dipping sauces nearby so you can dip each bite into the delicious sauces.
If you’re looking for the ultimate cook and eat experience with friends and family, you must visit a Japanese hot pot restaurant.
There, you’ll come across shabu-shabu and sukiyaki. Both of these foods are full of umami flavor, and if you’re a beef lover, you’ll appreciate the succulent thinly sliced meat pieces.
With some udon noodles or white rice, both dishes are sure to satisfy a crowd. So, the next time you want to visit a Japanese restaurant, make sure to try hot pot.
Also check out my Niku miso recipe | A must-try Japanese food for the whole family
Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.