Nabe hotpot dining must surely be the most convivial way of eating ever invented. The guests gather around a heavy metal pot suspended over an irori hearth, or just at a tabletop electric or gas stove, the beer and sake flow, the conversation never slows, and as the mixture begins to bubble and simmer, the room heats up, the hosts bring more tasty beverages, and an irresistible smell of slowly cooking stew begins to fill the room…
Nabe or to give it its fancy name nabemono, the great winter warmer, is an age-old rustic style of cuisine that took Japan's urban centers by storm. Today in tiny Tokyo apartment blocks families will huddle around an earthenware pot set on a calor-gas single ring stove straight out of a 1950s Ideal Home catalog, to re-enact on a minor scale the great country feasts of their forebears.
Nabe never loses its primitive campfire feel, even when it is served up, at some cost, as, say, yudofu in a rarified Kyoto restaurant or chirinabe at a fugu specialist in Ginza or Kitashinchi, Osaka.
It’s a refreshingly uncomplicated style of cooking, requires little preparation, and little washing up, and there’s almost no waste. The natural tastes of the ingredients are allowed to come through, and, as every impoverished Japanese student knows, the room gets heated as appetites get satisfied. What is there not to like?
A basic dashi stock, or in some cases just hot water, is placed in the nabe pot, then whatever ingredients are to hand are added and brought to a simmer. Guests then fish out the vegetables, shellfish, or meat of their choice, dip them in a sauce, termed tsukejiru and… eat.
The tsukejiru will most likely be ponzu, a mixture of dashi stock, shoyu, vinegar and citrus juices, probably yuzu, daidai, sudachi or kabosu. Kochi Prefecture’s Umajimura is renowned for the excellence of its ponzu, and it’s fabulous with cod in tara nabe. When the main ingredients or the gu good bits have all disappeared, the host will often add either rice to the stock to create a zosui rice soup, or udon noodles.
Common nabemono dishes include chiri nabe fish, kanisuki crab, hamo nabe pike conger, (pictured here above at Nakagawa in Kyoto), dote nabe miso and oysters, udonsuki udon, vegetables and shellfish, botan nabe wild boar, ishikari nabe Hokkaido salmon and vegetables, and chanko nabe the sumo wrestlers’ miso or shoyu calorie-fest containing just about everything.
Regional variations and specialities abound, and one of the great joys of rural onsen hot spring hopping is to sample local nabe after your leisurely soak. Stay tuned for FGL’s regional updates as nabe season kicks in here.