Shabu shabu, a la Korea

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Shabu shabu, a la Korea

How do you take shabu shabu ― a quintessentially Japanese dish ― and make it Korean?
Start with the dipping sauce. Chefs here, rather than prepare sweet and mild sauces to match the different ingredients, tend to make shabu shabu with a single pungent, tangy sauce to suit Korean tastes.
Then add side dishes like kimchi and fermented fish and pickles. And lots of noodles, so that after the dipping’s done, diners can make kalguksu (noodle in soup) and juk (porridge) out of the broth, in generous Korean-sized portions.
Hwanhi (“joy” in Korean) Shabu Shabu is one of the capital’s newer Korean-style shabu shabu restaurants. Located near the Galleria department store in trendy Apgujeong-dong, it’s bright, clean and swank, equipped with a wall-size flatscreen showing music videos and TV shows. The clientele includes both young Gangnam hipsters and diners who could be their parents.
This isn’t the sort of Korean shabu shabu place where an ajumma dumps meat, vegetables and noodles into a boiling pot, leaves to wait on other tables and returns to serve what by that time looks like overcooked goo. Nor is it the kind that serves only one variety of shabu shabu (beef).
The shabu shabu choices here, ranging in price from 15,000 won ($13) to 30,000 won, include beoseot sogogi (mushroom and beef), haecho sogogi (kelp and beef), sogogi (beef), modeum haemul (assorted seafood), minmul jangeo (eel), garibi sae-u (scallops and prawns), bogeo (globefish), anago (southern conger eel) and yuhwang ori (sulfur-fed duck).
The menu, incidentally, is written only in Korean, and the staff speaks little English. But there are beautiful color photos of each dish on the menu, which looks rather like a children’s book, so knowing Korean isn’t essential to ordering.
One of our friendly young waitresses recommended beef, or mushroom and beef. Assorted seafood sounded healthier, but we were worried about subjecting anything less than top-grade seafood to the minimal amount of cooking involved in shabu shabu. For variety’s sake, my colleague ordered mushroom and beef, and I went with the scallops and prawns, deciding to gamble on seafood after all.
The light brown stock, made from katsuo (dried tuna), was brought to boil on our table’s built-in electric range. The waitress then filled the entire table with the fresh ingredients to be cooked, along with side dishes including ojingeojeot (fermented squid), pickled radish and kimchi. We each got a tray with two dipping sauces, one soy-based and one red pepper-based.
My colleague’s dish came with a plate of appetizingly curled, thinly sliced beef and another plate of assorted mushrooms (button, boletus, enokitake and shiitake), fresh noodles and vegetables like Chinese cabbage, watercress and bok choy. Swiftly swishing the beef and mushroom slices in the boiling stock (the swishing sound is where the name “shabu shabu” came from), then dipping it in the sauce tinged with garlic, mustard and pepper, my colleague pronounced herself content with the presentation, taste and quantity.
A waitress brought me a metal prong to assist in the cooking of my scallops and prawns. Two conch shells (sora in Korean) went into the boiling stock first, then the scallops. The scallops looked and smelled very fresh, but the flesh was small as buttons, and the edges of the scallops’ shells had been slightly chipped ― a sign that the scallops, while fresh, were what’s known as “B-grade” fresh. The two sora and three scallops, in shells that made them look huge, amounted to five tiny scraps of meat. Luckily, I was able to convince my colleague to trade me five slices of beef for a scallop. The prawns and shrimp looked more substantial, but they shrank considerably in the broth.
I could have paid for an additional portion, but fortunately, the meal wasn’t over yet. Fresh noodles cooked with a few strips of mushroom and ssuk, or wild chrysanthemum leaves, in the by-now more flavorful broth, followed by a delicious porridge made of glutinous rice and kaoliang grains (an extra 1,500 won), made this a very filling meal in the end, and a wholesome one.

Hwanhi Shabu Shabu
English: Little spoken; no English menu.
Telephone: (02) 541-7933.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Location: In the basement of a building opposite Galleria department store in Apgujeong-dong.
Subway: None convenient.
Parking: Parking lot nearby; free for first hour.
Dress: Casual.

by Ines Cho
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