When you think of Japanese cuisine perhaps images of Sushi, Sashimi, and Tempura and Cup Noodles flood into your mind? However, something you may not be aware of is a dish that is a staple of the yearly feast of food, and can be found on the dining tables of Japanese households up and down the country. This is Nabe.
If you are, as yet, uninitiated into the ‘World of Nabe’ then let’s start at the beginning and define what we are talking about.
“Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!” - From Macbeth, William ShakespeareThe word Nabe literally means a cooking pot but the word has also come to mean the dishes prepared in it. Essentially it’s a hot pot filled with what could be described as something resembling a broth or soup into which either meat, vegetables or seafood is then put and boiled.
Nabe is, as you can imagine, very popular during the cold dry Japanese Winter when the temperatures dally around the single digits (Celsius, obviously not Fahrenheit). It is generally cooked on a portable gas stove on the dining table, thus it provides both nutritious freshly prepared food to fill your belly and an equally good source of heat and moisture for the room.
“Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.” - From Macbeth, William ShakespeareThe key ingredients are water, stock, heat and a healthy appetite. After that, everything is at the discretion of the diners. Speaking of healthy, for vegetarians, who often struggle to find a wide variety of exciting native cuisine that they can eat, it also provides a customisable slice of traditional Nippon that does not force them to abandon their principles.
There are two broad types of Nabe, but an almost infinite variety of recipes within these.
The first is typified by a lightly flavoured stock often derived from Konbu; made from the seaweed Kelp actually. Because these are lightly flavoured they are usually eaten along side a dipping sauce in a side dish called Tare. For Nabe, Ponzu, a kind of citrus-flavoured sauce made from vinegars, Konbu and fish stock is popular.
The second type uses a stronger flavoured stock. Often this will be Soy Sauce, Miso or Dashi. This again is made from Konbu but mixed and fermented with tuna and other fish extracts. Two less popular (but no less delicious) types of Dashi are made from sardine parts and the other from slowly stewed Shiitake mushrooms.
So, ‘What do you do?’ you might ask…
“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble.” - From Macbeth, William ShakespeareEffectively, yes! As the Three Witches recommend, first of all you need your cooking pot. These are usually clay as they keep the heat better, but often if you go to a restaurant they’ll use metal ones as it spreads the heat our more evenly; although they can be a bit dangerous if alcohol is involved. Secondly, you’ll need to heat your water and stock up until they are nicely simmering away. Once this is achieved you can start adding your ingredients.
It’s the ingredients that really define the different varieties of Nabe. Let’s start with the more popular lightly flavoured stocks:
Yudofu: this literally means ‘hot water and Tofu’ and goes well with Ponzu sauce and is an extremely healthy option. In addition to the Tofu, it is usual to add lots of vegetables such as cabbage and onions and fungi such as Shiitake.
Mizutaki: This is similar to Yudofu but is really dish centred round chicken, vegetables and mushrooms. Simple but mouth-watering!
Ok, and now let’s look at those based on stronger flavoured stocks:
Yosenabe: This is almost the generic default Nabe and you can basically put anything you like in this from meat to fish to vegetables plus Tofu and vegetables. If you are not sure what to go for then this is a pretty safe choice. Its stock is usually flavoured with Soy Sauce or Miso.
Motsunabe: This variety uses either pork of beef offal. It was a Kyushu (the large southern main island) speciality but it’s grown popular around the country due to the relative cheapness of the ingredients needed. Again it uses Soy Sauce or Miso stock but it has one particular peculiarity in that after all the offal and vegetables have been eaten, the remaining soup is boiled down and used to cook noodles. There is literally no waste with Motsunabe whatsoever.
Chankonabe: This was a traditional Nabe made for Sumo wrestlers as an easy dish for them to bulk up and put on that necessary weight. You usually see things like big meatballs, Udon noodles and all sorts in this. If you are absolutely ravenous then I think this may be your ticket to satisfaction.
Oden: If you’ve ever been into a convenience store in Japan during the winter months you may have found your nostrils assailed by the smell of boiling Dashi. The source of this will be the large metal boxes by the counter within which lots of fishcake like foodstuffs, slices of Daikon (related to radishes) and other goodies bubble away. This is Oden. Enough said methinks!
Sukiyaki: Now I am sure you have heard of this but you may not have been aware that it was a Nabe dish. The stock is a variety of sweet Soy Sauce. The Nabe itself includes vegetables, Tofu, noodles and, most importantly thin slices of beef that, once boiled, are dipped in raw egg and eaten straight away; the hot meat effectively cooks the thin layer of egg that clings to it. It’s delicious!
So back to “What do you do?”…
Well, as stuff gets cooked you and your friends can take any food directly from the pot as soon as it is done to be eaten directly and then keep topping up the pot with more. You keep going until everyone is full, Full, FULL! Or you run out of ingredients; usually the former.
So, one last point and it is important in my humble opinion: A Nabe is really just a great excuse for a gathering of your friends and family, whether that is out in a restaurant or at home. This method of eating really encourages positive social interacting and is a great way to get to know new people or simply have fun with existing friends. You share the food, swap stories and jokes and really get to get cosy with your fellow diners. It really is a win-win way to pass an evening. So, go Nabe!