8 Japanese Hot Pot Meals To Keep You Warm This Winter
Written by Kevin Kilcoyne (@kevinjkilcoyne)
When one thinks of Japanese food, the first things that probably come to mind are sushi, sashimi, ramen and other dishes popularized outside of Japan. However, there is one more ubiquitous and essential style of cuisine that finds its way onto the dinner table in Japan during the fall and winter months, and that is nabe.
The word nabe (鍋) itself is rather simple, literally being the character for the vessel which the food is cooked in, but the actual cuisine that is known as nabemono (鍋物), or nabe cuisine, is as versatile and flexible as a cooking can get. The basis of nabe is essentially a hot pot or a stew (but with more soup or broth), into which various ingredients are added to simmer and bubble away as people gather around to share and chat. As people dig in, taking their own portions from the communal pot and placing them on their own plates or into their own bowls, more ingredients are added to replenish the broth.
And while the recipes are as expansive as there are homes and restaurants that make nabe, there is an order associated with the nabe process that yields the most ideal results. First one needs a pot, traditionally an earthenware donabe (土鍋) to be exact, but metal and cast-iron pots also exist. Another essential for nabe a portable heating source, usually a small single-burner gas stove.
The next step is just prep work: cleaning, cutting, and arranging the ingredients and preparing the broth, which can either be store-bought or homemade. The type of broth and ingredients may vary depending on the style of nabe one chooses, but for the most part they share many of the same ingredients.
Once ready to cook, the ingredients can then be arranged in the bottom of the donabe before the broth is added. It’s also recommended to bring the broth up to a boil on the stovetop before carefully transitioning it to the gas burner as to save gas and time.
When the nabe is at the table and everyone is gathered around, the next step is simply to dig in, guests picking which of the ingredients they want using communal chopsticks and transferring them to their individual plates. As the soup simmers, the broth and ingredients can be steadily replenished, usually taking cooking time into consideration. Additionally, there is usually someone designated as the scum-remover, using a mesh ladle to remove any material that might accumulate on the surface.
As the nabe bubbles and simmers, the soup continues to gain depth, retaining the flavors of all the ingredients added from start to finish, and at the end of the meal, it isn’t unusual to finish off the broth with an accompaniment of rice or noodles.
Various bases can be used for a nabe’s broth ranging from traditional dashi to the more modern introductions of tomato and curry. What makes nabe unique is that as opposed to many other Japanese dishes, there really is no one set recipe. Pretty much when it comes to nabe, anything goes. There are of course various takes that have become staples and make-up the tradition of nabemono, but the options are only limited to the ingredients you have in your refrigerator and pantry. That being said, here are some of the most popular and well-known nabe dishes.
Fitting perfectly into the category of “putting whatever you have in the refrigerator into a pot” nabe, yosenabe has the least strict recipe of the list in that it really has no recipe at all. The traditions and styles of yosenabe will change from region to region and home to home, but ultimately yosenabe is about finding what ingredients you, and whomever you share your nabe with, enjoy. So by all means, get started on your yosenabe journey!
Oden is a dish as ubiquitous to the cold Japanese autumn and winter months as pumpkin spiced lattes are in the States. Although it is considered nabe, oden takes a bit of a turn from what one might associate as a hot pot dish, at least in its most popular form. Rather than being a soup into which ingredients are added to make a unique broth, oden is a dashi and soy-based broth into which ingredients are added, many on skewers, to be taken and eaten individually. The ingredients are then left to simmer away, absorbing the deep umami of the broth and growing ever more tender. Popular ingredients include Japanese daikon radish, boiled eggs, agetofu (fried tofu), hanpen (a type of steamed fish cake mixed with Japanese yam), and satsuma age (a deep-fried mixture of fish paste and vegetables). All of these can be found at oden restaurants or at local convenience stores, usually simmering away by the cash registers.
Have you ever felt a tug at your heart-strings while watching a sumō bout, wishing to be one of the massive, powerful, hulking wrestlers up there? Well then look no further for your muscle fuel than chankonabe. Eaten by sumō wrestlers to gain weight and give them the energy they need to train day in and day out in their stables, chankonabe is like yosenabe in that there aren’t any strict rules as to what goes into the hot pot. Rather, it’s mostly based around the preferences of the wrestlers in the stable, as the lower ranking sumō are responsible for cooking the large portions of nabe for everyone else. You might go ahead and give it a try at home, taking either the seafood or meat-based route, or visit one of the many chanko restaurants in Japan, which are most often opened by former sumō wrestlers, so you know you’ll be in for a filling, delicious treat.
Out of the nabe on this list, sukiyaki is probably one of the more popular and well-known nabe dishes in and outside of Japan. Also, as opposed to many of the other nabe listed, sukiyaki has a more defined recipe. One of the distinguishing factors of sukiyaki is the broth. Known as warishita, the soup is made from a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and sake. As the broth simmers, thin strips of beef are swished around just long enough to be cooked, as spending too much time in the thick, salty-sweet broth makes the meat too tough. Additional ingredients are added according to what one prefers, including tofu, mushrooms, onions, and carrots. And although to many raw eggs are as something to be avoided at all costs, sukiyaki wouldn’t be complete without the addition of raw egg into which one dips the savory beef as a finishing touch. At the end of the meal, udon noodles are usually added to the broth, which by now having reduced and absorbed flavor of the beef and vegetables, is salty-sweet heaven.
Similar to sukiyaki, shabu-shabu is a nabe dish that involves thin slices of beef (or sometimes pork) being briefly cooked in a simmering broth. The name of the dish is in fact derived from the onomatopoeic sound of swishing the strips of beef and vegetables in the broth as they cook. The way that Shabu-shabu differs from sukiyaki, aside from the apparent sound the meat makes in the broth, is the broth itself. While sukiyaki uses the salty-sweet warishita, shabu-shabu uses a more traditional kombu dashi (a stock made from kombu seaweed). Various accompanying vegetables and ingredients are added to the soup according to cooking time as those surrounding the simmering nabe swish the strips of meat back and forth and dip the cooked ingredients into either a ponzu or sesame sauce.
Possibly the least appealing on the list to the uninitiated, motsunabe is a stew of either pork or beef offal (or motsu). Originating in Fukuoka, this nabe was made popular because of how delicious and affordable it is. The accompaniments vary from house to house and can change based on the restaurant, but garlic chives and chili are usually added to remove any lingering odors or unappealing flavors from the intestines. Cabbage and other vegetables also find their way into the delicious broth, which is typically made with soy or miso. Like sukiyaki, the remaining broth of a motsunabe meal is usually saved to cook noodles, in this case champon noodles, a regional dish from Nagasaki.
Hailing from the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido, ishikarinabe uses some ingredients that are rather unusual to Japanese cuisine: butter and milk. Designated as the representative dish of Hokkaido, ishikarinabe uses many of the ingredients grown in and associated with the region such as salmon, potatoes, and because of its abundance of dairy cows, milk and butter. The broth is a combination of dashi, miso, sake, mirin, and milk. It is also distinguished by its use of seafood as opposed to meat as the main protein and flavoring agent for the broth.
Known by many for its dangerous reputation, the star of fugunabe is none other than fugu, the notorious pufferfish of Japan. While the fish can indeed contain deadly levels of neurotoxin tetrodotoxin, it is completely safe to eat when prepared by trained chefs in restaurants specialized in fugu based cuisine. Delicate and subtle in flavor and texture, the fish is usually only accompanied by vegetables, allowing the diners to flavor their portions as they like. As one might gather, this and other fugu dishes are mostly reserved for special occasions, not your everyday fare.
Now with an intro to the Japanese-style hot pot cuisine of nabe, you are more than ready to get started yourself. Just consider that maybe for your next get-together with family or friends, you can leave out all the prep work of cooking and planning and just relax. Simply gather the ingredients and enjoy the process of cooking them with everyone gathered around the simmering nabe, sharing the food and the time together.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.