Nabe – Japan’s Hot Pot Cooking

Share the joy!

nabeThere is nothing easier or more delicious in winter than a big clay pot brimming with natural ingredients. Nabe, or nabemono refers to a Japanese style of one-pot cooking, typically done at the table, bringing the family together to share a warm, healthy meal.

Because each person takes what they want from the pot, it is an easy meal for mothers to serve fussy children without leftover food, and basically every ingredient is a health shop in itself so it’s a simple way to provide quality nutrition to a hungry family.

Some Nabe Highlights:

  • Common ingredients are easily found in the supermarket at cheap prices
  • You don’t need to memorize a recipe if you are using a packaged nabe soup base, which is also available at the supermarket
  • Preparation is easy!  Chop and boil the ingredients.
  • Many more ingredients are added as you go, at the table. This means that most of the preparation is a fun family effort.
  • Nothing that goes into a nabe isn’t healthy (unless you put it there!).
  • Nabe warms you from the inside, so you don’t have to crank the heat up in your house.
  • It can be as fat free as you want it, and you can drink the soup too so no nutrition is lost.
  • Nabe only improves over time, so you can use the soup stock several days running, reinventing the style for variation.

Basic Preparations for Making Nabe

chanko-nabe-wikimediaFirstly and most importantly for the true nabe style, you’ll need a means of cooking the meal on your dining room table. There are two ways you can do this. The more traditional method is to purchase a little one-burner gas stove which runs on cylinders of gas.  These are called “kaseto konro, or  カセットコンロ, ガスコンロ.” You can find a selection of them here on Amazon.

You will then need a clay pot, a “donabe or 土鍋,” literally “earthenware pot,  for use over an open flame in the Japanese kitchen.  You can find one at any home centre or department store, especially during winter months.  You can find a selection of them here on Amazon.

A more modern alternative to the gas burner is an induction heater, which runs on electricity. If you choose this method you will have to be more careful about the type of pot you use, as a common clay pot will not conduct the electricity needed for the IH heater to work. There are however special converted IH donabe that will do the trick, or you can use any pot made out of a conducting metal.  Not very traditional and far less popular, but far less likely to burn the house down as well.

In Addition to the Burner and Pot, You’ll Need:

  • A ladle without holes for the soup
  • A ladle with holes to get the food without the soup (optional)
  • Long wooden chopsticks for cooking
  • Torizara; small pottery dishes of the size you can hold in your hand, for each person eating
  • Large platter(s) on which to arrange the ingredients you haven’t cooked yet
  • Oshibori – a damp hand towel for each person eating, is a good idea.

Now that you’ve gathered the tools, it’s time to go to the supermarket.

You can make your nabe out of literally anything, but it’s good to start with an idea of the kind of nabe you want. If you want to take a short cut, you can start by choosing a pre-prepared nabe soup mix, which you’ll be able to find in the same section of the supermarket where nabe ingredients such as fish, are sold.

Common Nabe Soup Styles

Yose Nabe – literally means “whatever you want to put in it” nabe – a very versatile stock for all ingredients.
Kimchee Nabe – this Korean base is great for ingredients such as tofu and pork. It can be as spicy as you like it, if you add extra kimchee.
Tohnyuu (soy milk) Nabe – great for mild tasting ingredients such as vegetables and chicken.
Chanko Nabe – This nabe was traditionally used for sumo wrestlers and is suitable for high-protein, high calorie ingredients such as chicken drumsticks.
Kaki (oyster) Nabe – Oysters add a wonderful flavour to the nabe, and can even be used the next day if measures are taken to make sure the oysters are OK (see below).
Kani (crab) Suki – Crab is also a wonderful flavour for a nabe, and adds another dimension to the family meal if you use real crab legs – messy but fun!

After you’ve chosen the soup, walk around the supermarket and put anything in your shopping basket that takes your fancy. Some common nabe ingredients include:

  • Shellfish or oysters
  • Fish (particularly white meat fish or salmon)
  • Chicken (with or without bones, with or without skin)
  • Thinly sliced pork
  • Meat balls, pork or chicken
  • Ito konnyaku – made from potato startch, these long black (or white) noodles are a great addition to any nabe. You can also use the non-noodle forms of konnyaku.
  • Tofu products – the firmer styles of tofu will hold their shape better, but any form of tofu will add flavour and nutrition to your nabe.
  • Fukuro – Fried tofu bags filled with mochi or vegetables.
  • Tsumire (fish balls) and other ingredients manufactured especially for oden or nabe (you’ll see the section in the supermarket)
  • Hanpen – soft white cake made from ground fish and yam
  • Satsuma-age – fried fish cake
  • Chikuwa – tube shaped fish cake
  • Sato imo – mountain potatoes have a great texture and taste wonderful. They are sometimes called “magic potatoes” in english for their healthful qualities. You can get them frozen too, if you don’t want to bother with the process of peeling the hairy skins.
  • Daikon – long white radish – the tops are better used grated in salads and the bottoms are great for nabe, either grated or just roughly cut up.
  • Hakusai – Chinese cabbage – long, pale green leaves, this goes in any kind of nabe.
  • Negi – leek or spring onion goes great in any form of nabe.
  • Mushrooms – enoki, eringi, shiitake – any kind of mushroom gives flavour and aroma to the nabe.
  • Anything leafy – try anything with leaves in the vegetable section of your supermarket – it’s bound to be a delicious addition to the soup!

You can find a selection of “nabe no moto,” or soup base for nabe pot cooking on Amazon.co.jp here so you can get an idea what to look for in the grocery store.

Better as leftovers!

A word on keeping the nabe fresh for the next day – most of the time you will not need to refrigerate ingredients if you just boil them a couple of times before you use it again. For example, boil the nabe in the morning after you get up, and then once again that night before you are going to eat it.

Refrigerate extreme perishables like oysters if the temperature in your house is high. Eat as many of the ingredients as you can the first night of the nabe, not adding unecessary ingredients you’re not going to eat that night.

The wonderful thing about nabe is that it only gets better the second night, as the stock has had time to mature. On the final night, you might like to add udon noodles to the soup, or cooked rice to the soup to make delicious zosui (rice gruel). Zosui is the chosen food of sick people, because it is so mild to the stomach and is filled with nutrients, but healthy people find it just as delicious! Adding a beaten egg to this final mix and then cooking on very low heat with the lid closed will give the best finish to zosui, sticking the mixture together very nicely.

To finish off, I leave you with some other websites and blogs that will tell you more about nabe and also give you some ideas for recipes and variations (not that you need them, a good nabe makes itself!)


Image by Yamaguchi YoshiakiCamera [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons (modified)
Image By User:Toki-ho and User:Ananda [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons (modified)

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