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Snow Country Hot Pot

Snow Country Hot Pot

Explore the breathtaking Tohoku region of Honshu Island in Japan, known for its rural and rugged landscape, and hearty, rustic cuisine that warms the soul. Discover the local hot pot dish, Damako Nabe, featuring rice balls, chicken, taro, burdock root, negi, konnyaku noodles, and oyster mushrooms in a savory soy sauce and sake broth. Make your own version with your favorite ingredients and enjoy the taste of Tohoku at home.

This month, Gourmet is running my story about Tohoku, a breathtaking region that sits atop the main island of Honshu. I've traveled to the area, Japan's snow country, several times. It's a remarkable place, rural and rugged, with dramatic mountains and coastline (and unbelievable onsens, including this one, hard by the Sea of Japan). The food there is as rustic as the landscape, simple, hearty fare that warms you on a frigid winter day. Hot pots are a big part of the cooking, as you may expect, with different areas of Tohoku proud of their local dishes.

The last time I traveled through the region, I met a woman in Akita Prefecture named Mrs. Shizuko Kamada, who invited me to her home and cooked hot pot for me and her family. She lived close to Akita City, the area's urban center, but her house was already deep in the countryside, surrounded by farmland and thick forest. She showed me how she buries Napa cabbage under the snow to preserve it fresh for months, and the foods she keeps in her storehouse. She also graciously shared her recipe for her local hot pot, "rice ball" hot pot (damako nabe). I cooked it again last night and it was delicious. Here's Mrs. Kamada's recipe, below. Give it a try. (Thank you, Mrs. Kamada.)

Damako Nabe

For the rice balls:
3 cups Japanese short grain white rice
Potato starch, as needed

For the broth:
1 quart chicken stock, prepared only from chicken bones (no bouquet garni or mirepoix)
1 quart iriko dashi
2/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons sake
1 teaspoon salt

2/3 lb taro
1/4 lb burdock root
3/4 lb chicken, boned and cut into bite-size pieces (white and dark parts)
1/2 lb Tokyo negi, sliced on an angle
7 oz itokonyaku noodles, boiling water poured over them
1/4 lb oyster mushrooms, ends trimmed
1 bunch seri (dropwort) or mitsuba as a substitute, the leaves plucked from stem

To make rice balls, mash the cooked rice with a spoon to crush the grains and sprinkle a little potato starch on them to hold the ball together. Dip your hands into salt water and roll the mashed rice into dense balls about 1 inch in diameter. Set aside.

Mix together all the broth ingredients to prepare. Set aside.

Prepare the hot pot ingredients: Steam the taro with the skin on, until you can pierce with a skewer. Cool and peel, and cut into 1/2 inch thick slices. Scrape the burdock root clean with the back of knife then shave it like you would sharpen a pencil. Place the shavings in bowl of cold water so they don't discolor.

To cook, add the chicken, burdock root and broth to a hot pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the taro, Tokyo negi, itokonyaku and mushrooms, in neat bunches in the pot. Cover and simmer for 5 more minutes. Add the rice balls and simmer for 2 minutes more. Garnish with the seri or mitsuba leaves and serve.

Now, if you check out the photo above you may notice the oyster mushrooms missing, and the curious appearance of carrots (fancy yellow heirlooms from the farmers market), cabbage, shiitake mushrooms and shimeji mushrooms. What gives? Well, that's the beauty of hot pot. The only rule is... no rules! This is relaxed cooking. If you're missing an ingredient, substitute it with another that you think would taste good. If you want to add more of one ingredient, just do it (I did, with the chicken). The bottom line: Make your hot pot your own.