Brr! The cold weather is closing in here in Japan, and people scuttle from one source of heat to the nest to stay warm while proclaiming ‘samui ne!’ (‘It's cold, isn't it!’)
However, beating the cold in Japan isn't as easy as you might think. Homes are typically poorly insulated, so it's not uncommon to be sitting in your house and see your own breath rise in a plume of steam!
So folks look to other methods to stay warm. Some set up a Kotatsu (a low table with a heating element underneath) to crawl under, others stick Hokkairo (hot patches) all over their body. But one thing everyone does is turn to piping hot dinners, and no meal better heard you through than nabemono (鍋物), the Japanese hotpot. The concept is simple and very flexible: boil up a soup base in a big bowl, throw anything you want in there and gather the family around to enjoy.
Here are three types of nabemono you can expect to be warming up the Japanese throughout the winter months:
Photo: Norio NAKAYAMA on Flickr
Sukiyaki is the most quintessentially Japanese of Nabemono, which is why you can find it filling most hotpots around the most important time of the year: the New Year.
Sukiyaki starts with a soup base of soy sauce, mirin (a sort of sweet, low-alcohol rice wine) and sugar. Into the soup goes thin slices of beef, tofu, leek, leafy vegetables and, if there's any space left, thick noodles. After boiling the contents they are dipped into raw egg (yes, raw egg is safe in Japan!) and then eaten.
Sukiyaki is widely known to the world via the song of the same name by Kyu Sakamoto, which despite the name actually has nothing to do with this delicious nabemono!
Shabu Shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ)
Photo: Banzai Hiraoki on Flickr
What a funny name! Shabu shabu is in fact an onomatopoeic word to describe the sound of the ingredients boiling away as they’re stirred into the hot pot. It’s an apt name, because that’s the unique point of shabu shabu: unlike sukiyaki and most other nabemono, which are mostly filled with their ingredients from the beginning and then eaten, with shabu shabu you sit down to a hot pot that is empty except for the boiling water (or a flavored broth known as dashi (出汁)) and the raw meats and vegetables are laid out on plates surrounding it. You cook and eat shabu shabu as you go, picking up your next desired mouthful, plunging it into the hotpot and boiling it until it is cooked through, then fishing it back out and dipping in sauce (sesame seed sauce is personal recommendation). Because your food needs constant attending to, shabu shabu is generally seen in Japan as part-meal part-activity, and a perfect example of the convivial nature of nabemono.
Hakusai-Butaniku Mille-Feuille (白菜豚肉ミルフィーユ)
Photo: yosshi on Flickr
The beauty of a good Japanese hotpot is its simplicity, so it makes sense that this writer’s personal favorite nabemono is the simplest of all, and requires only two ingredients, which as you may have guessed from the name, are: Hakusai (Chinese cabbage) and Butaniku (Pork). The slices of pork are layered between the leaves of the Chinese cabbage (hence the name ‘Mille-Feuille’) and then boiled. That’s it! Nothing dispels the winter chills better with so little effort.
These are but three examples: there are endless varieties out there (even a curry type!), and a walk through any Japanese supermarket in the winter months where the pre-made Nabe sauce packets are piled high is a testament to the popularity of this hearty dish. So boil up the soup, gather around and dig in!