WITH its fresh seasonal ingredients, mild natural flavors and the appealing "shabu shabu" sound of the bubbling pot, steaming Japanese hotpot is the perfect winter warmer for diners with a light palate.
Compared with Chinese huo guo (hotpot), the Japanese version often uses much less seasoning.
"We focus on presenting the natural taste of ingredients, so intense seasonings are never used," says Ikushima Yuichiro, Japanese restaurant executive chef at Okura Garden Hotel Shanghai.
"Most Japanese hotpots are served without dipping sauce so not to overpower the flavor," says Eric Zhang, the sous chef at J-Mix, Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel.
"A few - represented by Shabu Shabu - are served with sauce. This is prepared into either one with a fruity flavor or light savory soya taste," explains Zhang.
Ingredients are diverse, embodying the rich landscape of the country: from the mountains with their quality beef, chicken and pork to seafood from coastal areas producing salmon, tuna, crab and clam. Winter vegetables such as spinach, cabbage, plus tofu and mushroom are also typically used.
As well as the ingredients, the role of pot is highlighted. Chef Zhang explains that Japanese pots are categorized into paper, earthenware, silver, copper and iron. Each is used to highlight different ingredients and offers different properties. For example, the (flame resistant) paper pot is good at absorbing fatty greasy flavors.
Three kinds of Japanese hotpot are popular in Shanghai: boiling hotpot, soup hotpot, and sukiyaki.
Boiling hotpot, represented by Shabu Shabu, refers to a style of cooking which sees ingredients scalded in soup and served with dipping sauce - usually white sesame paste and pureed radish seasoned with grapefruit vinegar.
"The Japanese have their distinctive way serving Shabu Shabu. Ingredients are scalded in order of flavor - strong to light - and color - dark to bright. The soup left, absorbing all the flavors, is made into pao fan (cooked rice boiled in soup)," chef Zhang explains.
Soup hotpot, the most popular style, represented by seafood hotpot and oden (various ingredients such as radish, fish cake and egg stewed in dashi soup), is served without sauce.
Instead, it is distinguished by its rich umami soup base.
"Nowadays, soup bases in Japan tend to have more multicultural influences. The latest popular soup flavors include soya bean, tomato, Korean kimchi, Sichuan spicy and Chinese medicinal herbs," chef Zhang from Jumeirah Himalayas adds.
Sukiyaki, a winter favor, is characterized by thinly sliced beef simmered in a shallow iron pot, taken with sauce at the table. Simmered beef is coated with raw beaten eggs when serving. Its flavor is comparatively rich and the meat texture highlighted.
Fine dining Japanese restaurants in Shanghai's five-star hotels are currently serving their latest hotpots to keep diners warm over the winter months.
The sukiyaki (280 yuan + 15%) features carefully chosen beef and a rich balanced flavor. The snow beef (the name comes from its marbling, which resembles snowflakes) has a juicy, succulent texture.
When simmered in soya sauce with seaweed, sugar and mirin (a kind of Japanese rice wine) added, the beef is imbued with a tender texture and a rich and balanced sweet-and-salty flavor. Spinach, tofu, onion and bamboo are also simmered in the pot, providing more textures and a refreshing taste. The beef is served in the authentic Japanese way, coated with raw beaten egg to highlight the flavor.
Seafood soup hotpot
The big pot (700 yuan + 15%) is best shared by two people. Various seafood, meat - from bream, snow crab, salmon, sea clam to chicken - and vegetables are cooked together, which creates a rich and complex flavor, combining umami and natural sweetness. Chef Yuichiro recommends using the soup left to make pao fan, ideal for comforting both the stomach and the palate.