When I was in Japan, my father took me to his favourite Shabu-Shabu restaurant. Once we were seated, the graceful kimono-clad Japanese hostess withdrew and came back with a large cast-iron dish filled with a bubbling broth. Lighting a gas burner inset in the middle of the table, she placed the dish on it and then returned with a tray of dipping sauces and a large platter of raw food: delicately sliced, marbled beef, lotus roots, edamame beans, enokitake mushrooms and chrysanthemum leaves.
And then we were on our own.
My father showed me how to dip the beef and vegetables into the bubbling broth with long serving chopsticks, swish them gently around and then when they were perfectly cooked, place them on individual plates to be dipped into sauces and eaten along-side bowls of rice. Afterwards, the broth was served as a final soup, now rich with the nourishing juices of beef and vegetables. It was hugely enjoyable to cook our own food at the table, the broth making a bubbling susurration in the background, giving the dish its name: Shabu-Shabu.
There is something very pleasurable about DIY cooking, so when I came across the slender two-pronged forks hiding at the back of the kitchen drawers, I was prodded (so to speak!) into action. With stormy weather outside, the rain lashing down and a long afternoon and evening ahead with not much to do, it seemed the copper fondue pot languishing on the sideboard glinted and winked meaningfully at me.
Preparation became a family affair as we foraged for ingredients: a French loaf, very mature cheddar, a stub of left over parmesan, 2 bottles of a good artisanal lager, garlic and olive oil. We quick-steamed a quantity of cauliflower, mushrooms, broccoli and green beans, along with some oven-baked baby potatoes, each artfully wrapped in a bayleaf and a slice of bacon *
The baguette cut into slices, we painted each side with olive oil and garlic and toasted them under the grill. I made a basic white roux and then added the beer until the sauce had thickened. I then put in the grated cheeses until I had a rich, thick, creamy looking sauce. According to most recipes, you’re supposed to rub the inside of the fondue pot with a cut slice of garlic before you begin for flavour, but I wanted something more robust than that and threw in two finely chopped large cloves; I know it means you lose the perfectly smooth creamy consistency of the cheese but the taste was worth it. A generous grating of fresh nutmeg added a final flavour-twist.
When our guests arrived clutching a fistful of fondue forks in case we didn’t have enough, it was inevitable that we all began brandishing forks with gusto, spearing up food being prepared in the kitchen before it even reached the table. If there are a number of you, fondues naturally lend themselves to much fork-clashing, lost morsels of food in the sauce and fork-fights trying to retrieve them.
But hey, maybe that’s just us.
And it was great fun constructing intricate skewers of multiple morsels dipped in the heavenly creamy cheese and then topped with a yummy spoonful of pesto.
Our fondue might not have had the elegance and grace of Shabu-shabu with my father, but that night we melted away many hours of a winter’s evening.
It was rowdy and delightful.
* from Becky Johnson’s fab book “Fondue”