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Lunch in Tokyo: My First Shabu-Shabu

by Estella Gold

Photo: Jim G / Flickr

Reader Estella Gold sent us this postcard about her first time eating shabu-shabu in Tokyo.

When I'm on vacation, I almost always lose a little weight. This is a) because I am constantly in motion, and b) because I become obsessed with only eating foods that are special. When I'm home, I might eat a box of stale donuts because they are there. But in Japan, I will only eat something if it's authentically Japanese or otherwise rare and extravagant and worthy of being consumed on my special trip halfway across the globe.

All of the above explains why I had refused to eat anything between breakfast and 2:30 in the afternoon, despite being really, really hungry. I was saving my lunch for Asakusa Imahan, the restaurant that Lonely Planet recommended on its Asakusa walking tour. Asakusa Imahan is a small, upscale Japanese chain that specializes in shabu-shabu. The phrase "shabu-shabu" is onomatopoetic for the sound that beef makes when you swirl it around a bowl of broth. Here's how shabu-shabu works: You put a big steaming bowl of broth in the center of a table and assemble bowls of beef, veggies, sauce, what-have-you to the side. You cook the beef by swirling it for a few seconds and then you nom, nom, nom it. It's delicious, but I don't want to get ahead of myself. At this point in the story, I had not shabu-shabued yet.

There are two branches of Asakusa Imahan. I went to the bigger one on Kokusai Street. It was pretty easy to find, and I don't have any hilarious getting-lost stories. On the way, I found a seedy-looking Thai restaurant that was using MY NAME for its title. I did not appreciate this and thought about suing, but decided to reconsider until after lunch.

When I arrived at the restaurant, I managed to indicate that I was looking for shabu-shabu for one. I say "managed" because for most of my time at the restaurant, I did everything wrong. You could totally tell that I had never shabu-shabued before.

The waitresses were very polite, spoke excellent English, and did not laugh at my errors. I was impressed, because I usually spoke Japanese wherever I went, and typically found my Japanese to be better than the English of the person to whom I was speaking. Not at Asakusa Imahan. I don't know if the waitresses were fluent in English — or just experienced in explaining the way of the shabu-shabu to foreigners.

The first thing I did wrong was try to enter the restaurant. The waitresses asked me to take my shoes off first. I did and noticed rows of pretty wooden sandals by the entrance. These didn't look like shoes you would wear on the street, so I thought I was meant to put them on to walk around the restaurant. The outraged (yet very polite) shriek that came from the waitresses indicated to me that I was not meant to wear these shoes. Word to the wise: When you see strange pairs of shoes in a restaurant, ask before trying them on.

My next mistake: I tried to go into the dining room and have a seat. No. I was supposed to follow the waitress into the elevator to the third floor. There I was seated at a tiny shabu-shabu table on the floor. I tried to place my legs in a way that I would be comfortable and they wouldn't fall asleep. I was totally unsuccessful. My feet fell asleep three times while I was eating. I felt like a bull in a shabu-shabu shop.

I drank my tea and placed my order without further mishap. Soon the waitress put broth in the really cool giant hole in the center of my table and turned on the heater underneath to get the broth nice and bubbly. Then she returned with about a flobbityjillion different dishes: all kinds of different veggies, noodles, two sauces (one vinegar and one sesame), and, of course, thinly sliced layers of thickly marbled wagyu beef.

Wagyu is Japanese for "yummy," or at least it should be. Wagyu beef has more of the good stuff (fat) than other kinds of beef and supposedly comes from happy cows that have been massaged and fed sake. I'm sure they were super happy — up until the point they were slaughtered, chopped up, and brought to my table so I could swirl them around warm broth and dip them in sesame sauce.

The waitress demonstrated how to prepare shabu-shabu. She put assorted vegetables in the bowl — delicate enoki mushrooms, crisp carrots, and spicy green onions — and told me to leave them in there until they were cooked through. She showed me how to swirl the long white noodles in the broth until they turned clear, then dip them into sesame sauce. 

The beef was a more delicate procedure. It needed to be cooked just long enough for it to turn from pink to light brown. Any longer, and it would be too tough. Then, all I had to do was choose which sauce I wanted and — voilà! Instant yummy marbled beef. This was my idea of fast food.

I spent the next half hour having a great time swirling my beef in broth, thinking "shabu-shabu-shabu-shabu" the whole time. I was not yet so far gone in my shabu-shabu madness that I felt comfortable saying it aloud. I alternated beef with veggies or noodles so I didn't run out of the beef right away. I liked the spicy vinegar sauce but preferred the creamy sesame, which tasted a lot like the sauce I get on cold noodles at Suzie's Chinese restaurant back home.

When my belly was finally full of shabu-shabu goodness, it was time to pay and explore Asakusa. Unfortunately, the waitress had disappeared, and I didn't know how to find her. She had given me a ticket that indicated what I had ordered, but I wasn't sure whom to give the ticket to. I thought the best thing to do would be to head down in the elevator and present my ticket at the front desk.

As I hobbled towards the elevator on one good foot and one sleepy one, an unfamiliar waitress popped up out of nowhere like a shabu-shabu ninja. She took my ticket and followed me down in the elevator. I'm not quite sure why I needed to be followed, as it was highly unlikely that I would steal a steaming bowl of shabu-shabu even if I wanted to. But clearly I am a novice in the ways of shabu-shabu.

I paid at the front desk and I was presented with a little box of toothpicks and a set of orange cards with delicate drawings of Asakusa Imahan. I wish every restaurant gave such fancy parting gifts. I no longer felt awkward about being followed by the waitress. I wanted to apologize for being a big American klutz, but I didn't know how to say this in Japanese. Instead I just said my usual oishikatta desu! and headed out for the rest of my Asakusa tour.

If you're sitting there thinking, "this reminds me of the time on that great trip that this awesome thing happened," then you should totally tell us about it. Estella sent us this Postcard through our Tell Us Your Story page, and we loved it. We want FATHOM to be a place where people find travel inspiration, then come back and share their experiences.

FIND IT

Asakusa Imanhan
Kokusai Street location
3-1-12 Nishi-Asakusa Taito-ku 
Tokyo 111-0035
+81-3-3841-1114

Orange Street location
1-29-6 Asakusa Taito-ku 
Tokyo, Japan 111-0032
+81-3-3842-1800

Estella is a teacher and in her spare time writes for her blog, One for the Road Travel. She travels for the mind-expanding opportunities.

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