There’s something straaaaangely intimate about eating family-style.
Maybe I just feel that way because I was born and raised eating food at a family-style table: the only thing each person had for himself was a bowl of rice and soup. Everything else (all the side dishes, meats, fish) was fair game for the entire table. It was a VICIOUS competition for the juiciest piece of kalbi, the most flavorful strip of kimchi, the yummiest-looking chopstickful of greens.
Alright, that’s an exaggeration. But when you eat family-style you don’t just sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the person next to you; you eat chopstick-to-chopstick, spoon-to-spoon, occasionally bumping utensils when the person next to (or across from) you reaches for the same thing you do. And there’s some kind of warm-fuzzy-feeling building when you eat this way.
Now normally for our everyday meals, this bonding happened over various side dishes (as shown in the picture above). But it doesn’t always have to be banchan – sometimes we’ll get a group together around a grill for Korean barbecue, or circling around a huge red snapper.
Or maybe even a huge, bubbling pot of shabu-shabu.
To me, a pot of shabu-shabu is one big metaphor for what’s going around the table. A METAPHOR, I TELL YOU. Look at me, bringing out the fancy-schmancy figurative language.
Allow me to explain.
First, you start of with a pot of mom-made, anchovy-dashi stock (which happens to be the flavor-base for most Korean soups, stews, and other liquidy dishes).
This is like an empty table – a blank canvas, full of potential for new FLAVORS and new FRIENDSHIPS :D. Think of the slices of garlic as the utensils and plates on the table – they help get things started, and you can’t do this without them.
Then, the diners (i.e. your various ingredients) gather ’round:
As you can see, at first you got your ingredients on separate plates – just like people who aren’t really familar with the other party clump together in groups that they’re comfortable with.
But someone’s gotta get this party goin’. And that someone is gonna be the brave soul who takes the plunge into the broth by himself:
That, and.. it’s also because cabbage take the longest to cook.
So that first person/ingredient is kind of roaming the table by himself, not really knowing what to do. And even though he sacrificed his PRIDE and APPEARANCE for the sake of breaking the ice, it just ends up being kind of awkward. He ends up in my bowl by himself.
How tragic. Delicious, but heart-breaking nevertheless.
But then, ingredients from the other group start to wander over, venturing into the stock.
You know what happens next – now that ingredients from both parties have started mingling, a bunch of them loosen up and jump into the pot together.
And as the veggies and the seafood get to know each other, they start flavoring not only each other but the broth as well. Deep, flavorful mingling abounds!
But the best is yet to come – the awesome thing about shabu-shabu is that there’s no end to it! Almost!
It’s a delicious, glorious cycle that goes something like this: Dump ingredients into pot. Wait for them to cook. (As demonstrated above).
Fish them out once they’re done.
Add more ingredients to the now-empty stock, so they can cook while you enjoy the seafood and vegetables that you’ve taken out.
And repeat again. And again. And then repeat some MOOOOOORE.
But wait! Because my mom prepared not one, but TWO types of kimchi to enjoy with our meal! And honestly, it doesn’t get any better than that.
And just like the way people get more comfortable after eating with each other and the of SHABU-SHABU COMRADERY GROOWS, with each addition of the ingredients, the refreshing, seafood, umami-laced broth gets more and more concentrated. Seafoodier and seafoodier, umami-er and umami-er.
And it’d be such a shame to waste all this deliciousness, wouldn’t it?
So my mom added partially cooked noodles – undercooked so they can drink up all that yummy broth.
And eat we did. As you can imagine, after slurping up the noodles, my mom, my sister and I were full to the point of bursting. But we still had all this delicious stock left:
So we saved it for my dad’s breakfast the next morning – my mom just added more seafood and vegetables to give it more body. Even though he couldn’t eat this dinner with us, my dad ended up getting the most flavorful part of it! Funny how that works, isn’t it?
Well, if you think about it, this is about as communal a meal can get; not only are you eating from the same pot as everyone else at the table, but all the ingredients are in that one pot as well.
And to me, eating is so much more than putting food it your mouth. It’s about community – from the passing down of traditions to just catching up on each others’ days, the building and strengthening of relationships (whether they be with family, friends, or yes, even strangers!), all happen around the table, the same today as it was centuries ago.
So whatever utensils you’re using to reach across the table, whether they’re chopsticks, forks, spoons, or even your hands, try getting to know the people you’re dining with. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you know about them, or how awkward and uncomfortable it is at first. Eating is something that we all have to do, so why not do it together?
And if it’s around a bubbling pot of shabu-shabu, that’s all the better. :)