On my trip to Japan last month I was invited to three homes for three wonderful home-cooked meals -- and each was one a different kind of nabe, or hotpot. Nabe is the true soul food of Japan, the other side of the gustatory coin to the hushed and rarified kaiseki: A social, fun and comforting meal that warms your belly -- and your spirit. As autumn turns to winter in Japan, home cooking turns to these hotpots.
I love the culture of nabe: A donabe is filled with dashi (broth) and set on a portable burner in the center of a dining table, surrounded by platters of neatly portioned ingredients. Family and friends gather around, dipping seafood, meat, vegetables, tofu and other foods into the dashi to quickly cook them. Round after round you go until the ingredients happily disappear. As the foods cook, they infuse and deepen the broth. (I remember once reading the writer Jim Oseland describe a soup as "liquid joy." That about sums up nabe broth for me.) As a final step, you swirl rice and raw egg into remaining broth for a hearty and satisfying porridge.
Every region has its own traditional nabe centering on local ingredients and customs, from northern Hokkaido Island's salmon and miso ishikari nabe to the chicken-infused mizutake nabe of Japan's Deep South. Hiroshima has its own traditional hotpot, too, called dote nabe, which features oysters cooked with miso. Oysters abound in the Inland Sea area close to the city, as I understand it, and nearby Fuchu is famous for its miso.
Since oysters are in season and especially delicious now here at home, my girlfriend and I decided to invite a couple of friends over to try a Hiroshima-style nabe. We culled the recipe that follows from a couple of cookbooks. Please don't be put off by list of ingredients. Just give yourself a couple of relaxed hours to get everything ready, then lay out all the foods on the dining room table. Gather family and friends, fire up the donabe -- and get cooking!
One final note: A curious thing to me about eating oysters in Japan is that, despite the reverence for rawness in the cuisine, they're typically served cooked -- the exact opposite of how we like them here. I asked my friend and teacher Chef Ono about this and he explained that cooking oysters brings out much more of its flavors than simply plopping them down the hatch ice-cold. When I tried the dote nabe, which became infused by the bubbling oysters, I understood what he was saying.
Check out these photos, too, from our nabe-cooking extravaganza:
Hiroshima Dote Nabe
The trick with this particular hotpot is to schmear a healthy patina of miso mixture along the inner walls of the donabe before adding the dashi and ingredients. As the nabe cooks, the miso melds into the broth and the flavors combine. We whipped up our miso mixture from half sweeter white miso and half saltier red miso -- but you can alter these proportions to taste. (One of the cookbooks we consulted recommended three parts white miso to one part red miso.) You can also alter the amount of miso, too: In fact, the next time I cook this nabe I'm going to use less of the miso mixture, because I felt the miso flavor was too strong in the first couple of bowls. As we added more dashi, though, the flavors balanced out and the taste of the oysters and other ingredients came through nicely. That's the beautiful thing about nabe: Hard to mess it up!
- Donabe pot
- Portable burner
(Note: You'll have find a Japanese grocery store for many of these ingredients.)
- 4-inch piece of konbu
- 3 Tokyo negi (Japanese leeks)
- 1/2 head hakusai (Chinese cabbage)
- 1 bunch shungiku (garland chrysanthemum)
- 1 pkg (4 oz) kuzikiri noodles (arrowroot starch noodles)
- 1 pkg (7 oz) enoki mushrooms
- 1 pkg (6 oz) shimeji mushrooms
- 1/3 lb shiitake mushrooms
- 1 cake (1 pkg) yakitofu ("broiled tofu")
- 2 dozen oysters (I bought a mix of varieties and sizes)
- 1 cup daikon oroshi (grated daikon)
- 1/2 lb white miso
- 1/2 lb red miso
- 3 T mirin
- 3T sake
- 3 cups Japanese short grain white rice
- 2 eggs, beaten
- Soak kuzikiri noodles in large bowl of water for two hours
- Fill a large stockpot with water and add konbu, let seep at least an hour (more is okay)
- Cook the rice
- Prep ingredients:
- Cut yakitofu cake in half lengthwise, then into 1-inch slices
- Cut the white part of the negi into 2-inch pieces on an angle
- Wipe shiitake mushrooms with wet paper towel, cut off stems and carve a decorative "X" on the caps
- Cut off bottom of enoki mushrooms and separate strands by hand
- Cut off bottom of shimeji mushrooms and break apart clumps into smaller clumps
- Slice Napa cabbage in half lengthwise and cut into 2-inch pieces
- Chop shungiku into 2-inch pieces including the thick stems
- Prepare miso mixture by combining red miso, white miso and mirin in a bowl
- Shuck oysters (if you don't know how to do this, please avoid an emergency room visit and ask your fishmonger to shuck for you)
- "Wash" oysters in the daikon oroshi by gently mixing them together by hand. The daikon will turn gray and absorb the fishiness and any dirt from the oysters. Rinse off the oysters and refrigerate until ready to cook. Discard the used daikon oroshi.
- Arrange all the ingredients artfully on your favorite tableware
- Make a dashi (broth) by bringing the water and konbu mixture to just under a boil. (Bubbles will form on the konbu.) Turn off heat.
- Place donabe on portable burner on dining room table
- Spread the miso mixture along the inside of the donabe. Go easy, layer on about an inch to inch and a half wide ribbon along the circumference.
- Pour a couple of ladlefuls of dashi plus the sake into the donabe, turn on the heat and being adding ingredients. Start with the longer-cooking items, like negi, tofu and hakusai and stems of the shungiku. As they begin to cook, add the mushrooms, noodles and oysters. Don't add everything at once. Cook in batches. When ingredients cook through serve along with the broth in bowls.
- As guests finish their nabe, add more dashi and more ingredients and ladle up more servings. The flavor of the broth will evolve during this process, as the miso dissolves.
- Enjoy bowl after bowl of the nabe and make sure to drink a lot of sake! (Warm sake is a perfect compliment, especially on a frigid night.)
- Once the ingredients are finished, add the rice to the remaining broth. Over medium heat, swirl in the eggs and cook for a minute before serving. This comforting rice porridge has many different names in Japan, depending on the region. When I visited Akita Prefecture this past winter, they called this final dish neko manma ("cat food") because of its resemblance to Fancy Feast. Despite the imagery, it's absolutely delicious!