Unless you’re Japanese or an expert on the topic of Japanese cuisine, chances are you wouldn’t be able to differentiate between Japanese sukiyaki and shabu-shabu. Believe us, not even die-hard foodies know the difference so it’s totally understandable that you don’t.
Quit making the mistake of thinking that both of them are the same because they’re worlds apart.
For one, sukiyaki is not hot pot, despite the fact that it is typically eaten out of a pot. Sure, it’s a one-pot-meal (essentially) but there is no soup nor stock involved—rather, a sauce. Shabu-Shabu, on the other hand, bears similar qualities of the conventional hot pot in that raw ingredients are cooked in a pot of boiling water or broth but still, there are some differences.
Sukiyaki is considerably more full-flavoured and robust. Commonly eaten during wintertime, this style of cooking involves raw ingredients, usually raw beef, vegetables and tofu cooked in a shallow base comprising soy sauce, mirin (Japanese rice wine) and sugar.
More of a sauce than a broth, the flavour of sukiyaki is sweeter and more pronounced. It is typically eaten with rice and meat is dipped into a raw beaten egg. The egg provides richness and also smoothens out the intense sweetness of the beef.
Shabu-Shabu, on the other hand, is much lighter and more savoury than sweet. Like conventional hot pot meals we’re used to, shabu-shabu involves cooking raw ingredients piece by piece in the centre of the table in a boiling pot of water or broth.
The broth is much lighter in flavour, sometimes flavoured with no more than bonito, kombu and a bit of salt to taste. The main difference between shabu-shabu and sukiyaki (besides its sweet and savoury rivalry) is that rather than just egg as a dip, shabu-shabu sees a variety of different dipping sauces—allowing diners to appreciate ingredients in more than one way.
From a diner’s point of view, the best way to understand the difference between the two is to know that sukiyaki is sweeter, tastier and heavily reliant on the quality of its base whereas shabu-shabu is milder, simpler yet places heavy emphasis on the quality of the ingredients.