As I was growing up in a Korean household, soup acted as the centerpiece for evening meals.
The ritual began as soon as my mother placed a large bowl on the dining table filled with vegetables, meat, tofu and/or seafood churning in a bubbly whirlpool of broth. Everyone in my family would immediately plunge their spoons into the nurturing elixir and vie for those hot morsels soaked through with flavor.
This shared dining ritual promotes closeness. Everyone’s spoons and chopsticks sharing the same bowl is no less taboo than sharing sips from the same water bottle. A lot of Asian cultures have some form of this. The Chinese and Vietnamese have hot pots where diners can plunge a dizzying array of raw food into a shared vessel of boiling broth. The Japanese call their communal hot pot experience nabemono.
Sukiyaki, a formalized type of nabemono typically eaten during colder weather, uses a salty and sweet soup base made with soy sauce, mirin (rice wine) and sugar. Norcross’ Sushi Yoko delivers a worthy version (market price, typically $35-$38 per person and requires one-day advanced notice) that makes for a fulfilling experience.
A waitress adds ingredients to the nabe to make sukiyaki (photos by Gene Lee)
In Japan, sukiyaki may be prepared differently depending on the region. In the Kanto region where Tokyo is located, broth is first added followed by a variety of vegetables, tofu and meat. More south-central in the Kansai region, the sukiyaki pot is typically greased down with tallow, and then raw food items and soup follow. Sushi Yoko’s chef/owner, Tomonori Nakamura, tells me “some Japanese put meat first, or some add vegetables first — it depends on where you are from. And people who like ‘beefier’ sukiyaki add the meat first.”
My wife and I camp out with friends in one of Sushi Yoko’s private tatami rooms, while our kimono-clad waitress, Junko, prepares our sukiyaki Kansai-style. (Kanto-style can also be requested and is more typical here.) A large, arranged bowl of raw vegetables, tofu and almond-colored yam noodles (konnyaku) arrives and is for communal sharing, but each diner receives individual platters of thinly sliced marbled beef from a hybrid of Japanese Wagyu and American Angus cows.
The ingredients bubble away
In a calligraphic motion, Junko gracefully guides a chunk of tallow over the sukiyaki pot’s hot surface. Cabbage leaves, tofu and chopped onion hiss and hurl as they are carefully added, and then she splashes a prepared liquid concoction of soy sauce, sugar and mirin (rice wine) from a metallic tea kettle while simultaneously cutting it with hot water from another pitcher.
When the broth starts to bubble, Junko adds the crinkly strands of konnyaku and shiitake mushrooms with pretty floral patterns etched into them. She then spouts something instructive to our Japanese friend, bows with respect and slowly backs out of our tatami room.
Our friend adds a strip of beef into the soup that quickly browns, and then removes and swipes through a liquidy bowl of grated yam (optional) before dispatching it with a single, slurping motion. You might perceive the slimy yam concoction as unappealing, but Nakamura explains that this makes the taste milder. “Sukiyaki can be too salty and sweet for some,” he states, “so this eases the flavor.”
Alternatively, some Japanese prefer to swab through a beaten raw egg, but Nakamura tells me that he can’t provide raw eggs to diners due to a Gwinnett County health code flag.
Udon noodles go in at the end for a final treat
Toward the end of our meal, our friend asks our waitress for some udon noodles to add into the pot. “Some Japanese like to do this at the end,” he explains. “When I was growing up, my family threw rice into it. Udon is more restaurant style.”
Junko returns with a bowl of cooked udon, which we add to the pot along with some diced green onions and swirl everything around for a minute. I take a few bites, but quickly realize I have maxed out my stomach space. “That’s fine,” our dining companion dismisses with a grin. “Take some home. It’s actually even better the next day because the flavors improve!”
Go experience sukiyaki now while the days are still cold. It’s a comforting hot pot experience that anyone would appreciate.
SUSHI YOKO7124 Peachtree Industrial Blvd., Norcross, 770-903-9348Food: Traditional Japanese cuisineService: StandardVegetarian selections: Yes, there are many vegetarian-friendly options involving vegetables and tofu prepared many different ways.Credit cards: Visa, American Express, MasterCardHours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., dinner 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; lunch noon-2 p.m., dinner 4:30-9:30 p.m. SundaysChildren: YesParking: In the lotReservations: Taken. Sukiyaki and shabu shabu require one-day advance notice, and reservations are recommended for the private tatami rooms.Wheelchair access: FullSmoking: NoNoise level: NormalPatio: NoTakeout: Yes