Sakai's shabu-shabu: Hot pot with a twist

I have always enjoyed dining in "shabu-shabu" restaurants, where customers take on the role of a chef and are delegated the arduous task of making their own meals at the table by cooking raw meat and vegetables in broth or over a grill. But nothing prepared me for that unforgettable dinner that I had at a humble shabu-shabu resto called Mimiu, during a visit last autumn to the ancient Japanese city of Sakai in the Osaka Prefecture. We had a delicious—and unforgettable—shabu-shabu meal in cozy Mimiu in Sakai. The humble, two-storey wooden restaurant was said to be the first to have served udon-ski—the famous shabu-shabu meal with udon noodles. As I entered the restaurant, along with other Southeast Asian journalists invited to tour the city, warm lights in the low-ceilinged hallway gave us a cozy feel to the place. Shoes had to be deposited at a wooden shoe rack by the stairs. We then took our places at the tables, which came with rabbit-inspired tableware: from a pint-size ceramic rabbit chopsticks holder and a rabbit toothpick container to a small bowl with the restaurant's rabbit logo printed on it ("mimiu" is a term for rabbit). To prepare our taste buds for what's ahead, a vegetarian tempura was first served as an appetizer: battered and deep-fried slices of carrot, sweet potato, and Chinese cabbage, as well as a piece of tofu swimming in broth. Next came a small dish containing small portions of minced ginger, minced red radish, spring onions, and calamansi—all to be mixed together (using an improvised "clam spoon") to create a flavorful add-on spice/sawsawan for the udon-ski later. And so, right after feasting on the appetizer and preparing the dipping broth while sipping a complimentary hot tea, the much-anticipated ingredients for udon-ski were brought in one by one. Clams. Chicken strips. Mochi balls (Japanese glutinous rice cake). Unagi (eel). Shiitake mushrooms. String beans. Noodles. And finally, the traditional Japanese stock called dashi, made from sea kelp and bonito fish flakes. At that point, everything looked ordinary—pretty much what I always see being served in shabu-shabu restaurants in the Philippines. And so, we went straight ahead with cooking the meal—pouring and then heating the dashi in the stainless pot, then tossing in all the raw ingredients until we brought the broth to a boil. In the middle of the meal, Hisanori Kato, senior adviser for international affairs at the Sakai City Culture and Tourism Bureau who was graciously acting as our tour guide in the city, interrupted us to announce that the highlight of the udonski meal was finally about to happen. As if on cue, female servers came in and placed a small covered bowl on each of the tables. As I opened our bowl, we saw live and gently moving shrimps. Everybody stared at each other with a look of disbelief. I'm quite certain each one of us was saying in our heads: "Don't tell me we're going to cook them alive?!" Unfortunately, yes, we had to. And so, using my chopsticks, I hesitantly took one of the shrimps, which at that time was barely moving. A quiet, quick death then, I reassured myself. But as soon as I hovered my chopsticks over the boiling broth, the shrimp started to squirm a bit, obviously pained by the heat. And when I started slowly dipping it into the stock, it wriggled so strongly I thought it was going to jump out of the pot. Seriously, I never thought shrimp were that strong. I tried holding on to the shrimp as it continued to writhe for dear life for what seemed like forever. Until finally, it stopped, as the pale gray sea creature turned reddish orange. Describing the experience as traumatic would be an understatement. It's one thing to eat in those "dampas" in Cebu, where you hand-pick live fish from an aquarium but the cooking is done in the kitchen, perfectly obscured from the customers' view. And it's another to see what you are about to consume die right before your eyes. Just the same, the meal turned out well, thanks to the colorful flavors paired with the right textures all complementing inside your mouth: the chewy mochi, the tender meat strips, the flavorful hot dashi, and the crunchiness of what's left of our tempura appetizer. Though begrudgingly eating the shrimp I had just "barbarically" cooked, I still somehow found the entire experience enjoyable and the traditional Japanese cuisine sumptuously delectable. After all, everybody ends up in the mood as long as the food is good. — BM, GMA News