On rainy days or cold nights, a hot dish is one of the best things a person can eat to unwind and enjoy the relaxing ambiance. Ordering a bowl of ramen may be the first thing that comes to mind when in Japan but there are actually many other equally scrumptious dishes that a tourist can choose from, collectively known as nabe.
The Definition of Nabe (Japanese Hot Pot Dishes)
Nabe refers to a wide variety of hot pot dishes often served during the colder seasons of Japan. The term comes from the words “nabe” which means “cooking pot” and “mono” which means “object”, “thing”, or “matter”. In that sense, nabe basically consists of different things cooked in a pot.
Soups and stews are among the most common forms of nabe. These dishes are often cooked right at the table through the use of a traditional clay pot or portable stove. The vegetables, meat, or noodles are served raw and are put into the pot according to the wish of the diners.
Traditional clay pots are called donabe, while thick cast iron pots are referred to as tetsunabe. The type of pot used for nabe often depends on the kind of dish to be cooked. For those that need to be kept warm after being taken out of the stove, donabe pots should be used. For dishes like sukiyaki which require an even distribution of heat, tetsunabe pots are preferable.
Nabe dishes are either eaten with a dip or with a broth. The two most common types of nabe stock are known as mizutaki and yudofu, which are both made from kombu and have a light flavor. A separate dipping sauce called tare is often served on the side for those that want to savor the taste of each ingredient without the broth.
Various seasonings such as red pepper, butter, and grated garlic can also be added to the dish to better suit one’s preference. These additional spices are collectively referred to as yakumi.
Stronger broths are also available and are made using miso, dashi, or soy sauce as a base ingredient. Dishes that are cooked with these kinds of broths typically do not need any additional sauce or flavoring.
Other than allowing diners with limitless options in terms of ingredients, the beauty of nabemono also lies in its ability to offer a sociable way of enjoying a meal with a friend, family members, or a large group of people.
Nabe Variations (Chankonabe, Oden, Etc.)
Although there is no strict rule when it comes to making nabe dishes, each of them can fall under the following varieties considered to be the main nabe types:
Compared to other nabe dishes, the chankonabe makes use of more ingredients. This dish was originally meant for sumo wrestlers and was eaten by them for the purpose of gaining weight. Common chankonabe recipes include udon noodles, chicken, meatballs, and cabbages, among many other food items.
One of the most famous dishes from the local cuisine of Fukuoka is the motsunabe, a dish made with pork or beef offal. Initially, this was only being cooked and eaten within the city but it eventually became a popular, nationwide dish during the 1990s for its affordable price and satisfying taste.
At present, the ingredients used for making motsunabe vary from restaurant to restaurant. The only items common among motsunabe dishes include cabbage, garlic chives, and beef offal. In terms of broth, the nabe dish usually makes use of either miso or soy sauce based stock.
Oden is one of the most popular hot pot winter dishes in Japan and is often sold from food carts. It makes use of a light broth made from soy-flavored dashi. The ingredients used for this dish are different throughout the numerous regions of Japan but often include processed fish cakes, boiled eggs. konjac, and daikon. A separate condiment known as karashi is often used to add flavor to the dish.
Shabu-shabu, which may also be spelled as syabu-syabu, makes use of thin meat slices and vegetables. These ingredients are boiled piece by piece in the pot and are usually eaten with a separate dipping sauce.
The name of the dish comes from the sound produced when the ingredients are stirred and cooked in the hot pot.
Similar to shabu-shabu, sukiyaki also makes use of thin meat slices, along with starch noodles, vegetables, and tofu. The main difference between the two nabe dishes is that sukiyaki makes use of a sweet shoyu broth made from sugar, mirin, and soy sauce. Furthermore, the dish is also often served with a raw egg dip.
Yosenabe is basically another term used to refer to nabe dishes that make use of just about any and every ingredient desirable. Its main distinction as a hot pot dish is its use of either a miso or soy sauce based broth.
Among all nabe dishes, yudofu is probably the simplest one, only consisting of tofu pieces simmered in a light kombu broth. This dish is often served with other condiments such as ponzu, a citrus-based sauce that comes in a dark brown color and has a watery consistency.
Nabe Regional Variations
Nabe dishes may also be categorized according to region. These regional variations generally make use of corresponding specialty food items. Some examples of nabe regional dishes include:
The ishikari-nabe is Hokkaido’s version of the nabe dish. It makes use of a miso-based stock where various vegetables and salmon are stewed. Other ingredients often used in ishikari-nabe include Chinese cabbage, shiitake mushroom, tofu, daikon, konjac, butter, and potato.
Kiritampo refers to pounded rice which has been skewered and grilled. This type of food is stewed in a broth along with burdock, konjac, Welsh onion, Japanese parsley, and chicken to produce kiritampo-nabe – a specialty of the Akita Prefecture.
Hoto refers to a type of udon noodle. The Kanto region makes use of this food item as the main star for its hoto-nabe dish, which makes use of a miso-based broth. Other common ingredients include Chinese cabbage, taro, carrot, and kabocha squash.
Momiji-nabe, also known as venison-nabe, is a specialty dish of the Chuetsu region. Aside from venison, the usual ingredients used for the dish include tofu, Welsh onion, shiitake mushroom, burdock, and other green vegetables which are cooked in a miso-based stock.
Udon-suki and Harihari-nabe
The Kansai region has two nabe variations known as udon-suki and harihari-nabe. Udon-suki primarily makes use of udon noodles along with a wide variety of ingredients, while harihari-nabe makes use of mizuna (water greens) and whale meat. The latter is considered to be a specialty of Osaka.
Fugu-chiri and Dote-nabe
The Chugoku region also offers two distinct nabe dishes called fugu-chiri and dote-nabe. Fugu is a Japanese term used to refer to the pufferfish, which is popular for being a lethally poisonous type of fish but, nonetheless, is a popular food the Japanese community shares a love for. As such, only select chefs in Japan are qualified and allowed to prepare fugu.
Fugu-chiri makes use of a dashi-based broth where fugu slices and several leafy vegetables are cooked. This dish is often served with a separate ponzu sauce on the side.
On the other hand, dote-nabe makes use of a miso-based broth and oysters, along with other ingredients such as tofu and Chinese cabbage.
Benkei no najiru
The benkei no najiru is a nabe dish from the Shikoku region which consists of a large variety of ingredients. Although “najiru” translates to mean “vegetables soup” in English, the dish itself makes use of a lot of meat such as chicken, pork, beef, duck, and wild boar, alongside hiru (shallot), dumplings, mizuna, and radish.
The Kyushu region’s version of the nabe is known as mizutaki. It makes use of a simple stock where various vegetables and chicken are stewed together. A separate dipping sauce (often ponzu) accompanies the dish. Usual ingredients used in mizutaki include shirataki noodles, Chinese cabbage, shiitake mushroom, and tofu.
Best Nabe Restaurants in Tokyo (2017)
Foreign travelers who will be coming to Japan during its colder seasons (December – February, and June – July) should make it a point to try out at least one kind of nabe dish. The experience itself makes for a great social activity and will not burn a hole in one’s pocket. For the year 2017, the best nabe restaurants to visit in Tokyo include:
Kappou Yoshiba formerly served as a sumo stable. The restaurant features several architectural designs in line with its previous life and even a sumo ring that has been kept well-preserved throughout the years.
This place is among the best restaurants in Tokyo to try out chankonabe. The dish costs just about 2,600 yen which is big enough for two people to share. Other dishes such as sashimi and rice bowls are also available for around 800 to 1,000 yen.
Mo-Mo-Paradise specializes in sukiyaki and shabu-shabu dishes. Each dish, which is an all-you-can-eat 90-minute course, is available for around 2,000 yen. For this price, a customer can choose what broth he wants and have unlimited servings of rice, vegetables, and meat. Two kinds of broth may also be availed by paying an additional charge of about 300 yen.
Nabe-zo has several branches scattered in Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, and Tokyo. The restaurant is known for offering all-you-can-eat promos which last for 70 minutes long during lunch and 90 or 120 minutes long during dinner.
The lunch promo is priced at about 1,500 yen, while the 90-minute and 120-minute promos cost about 2,800 and 3,400 yen, respectively. Vegetable-only courses are also available at cheaper prices.
Sumo-Chaya Terao is owned and operated by a family of sumo wrestlers. As such, the restaurant is popular for serving different kinds of chankonabe. Customers can choose from five chankonabe variants which differ from each other in terms of broth.
An order of chankonabe costs around 2,500 to 2,800 yen and can be made using a miso, salt, ponzu, curry, or soy sauce based stock. Lunch sets are also available for about 1,200 to 1,500 yen which already include chankonabe, zosui (rice porridge), udon noodles, and either a dessert of drink.
Tajimaya is one of the most popular shabu-shabu and sukiyaki restaurants in Japan. Its branch in Shibuya offers a 60-minute long all-you-can-eat lunch promo that costs around 1,000 yen for shabu-shabu and 1,100 yen for sukiyaki. Both lunch courses include unlimited servings of rice, udon noodles, and vegetables. Shabu-shabu and sukiyaki courses with meat are available for about 1,700 yen.
The prices for the all-you-can-eat dinner courses are different for men and women. The starting price for women is around 2,800 yen, while men have to pay a slightly higher price of 3,000 yen. Both courses include unlimited beef, chicken, pork, rice, udon noodles, vegetables, and ice cream.
Making Nabe at Home: A Basic Nabeyaki Udon Recipe
Given the simple concept of making nabe dishes, there is not much reason for a person to not try making them at home. Nabe pots and portable gas burners are readily available in supermarkets and grocery stores, in and out of Japan.
One of the most basic nabe dishes that even a beginner at cooking can do is the nabeyaki udon – a hot pot noodle dish often served in an individual donabe. The basic recipe below can be done in about an hour and is good for making two servings of nabeyaki udon.
½ cup of water
1 inch of carrot
6 inches of Tokyo negi (leeks or scallions can also be used)
2 large eggs
1 ounce of shimeji mushrooms
1 pack of kamaboko (processed fish cake)
2 packs of udon noodles
1 piece of chicken thigh
2 pieces of shrimp tempura
4 pieces of dried shiitake mushrooms
1 stalk of spinach
2 stalks of Japanese parsley
3 cups of dashi
1/3 cup of shiitake dashi
2 tablespoons of mirin
1 ½ tablespoon of soy sauce
1 teaspoon of kosher salt
Prepare and gather all the ingredients.
Soak the dried shiitake mushrooms in water for 15 minutes, making sure they are fully submerged until the time is up.
Squeeze out excess water from the shiitake mushrooms then cut off their stems. Afterward, each mushroom should be scored with a cross on top. Strain and set aside the water used where the mushrooms were soaked to use later on for the udon soup.
Blanch the spinach in boiling water which has been lightly salted for about a minute, making sure to put the pieces stem first.
To prevent the spinach from overcooking, soak them in iced water before cutting them into 1 ½-inch pieces.
Slice the negi, carrots, kamaboko, and shimeji mushrooms into bite-sized pieces.
Cut the chicken thigh into 1-inch pieces
Mix the dashi and the strained liquid from the shiitake mushrooms in a small bowl. Over a medium-high heat, bring this mixture to a boil.
Once the mixture has begun to boil, add in the soy sauce, mirin, and salt. Remove from the heat and set aside once it begins to boil again.
Cook the udon noodles in boiling water. They can be taken out and soaked in iced water once the noodles separate from each other.
Drain and set aside the udon noodles.
Excluding the spinach, Japanese parsley and eggs, divide all ingredients into two individual donabe pots.
Add the broth to the pots then place the lid.
Put the donabe over medium-high heat. When the soup starts to boil, slightly open the lid to prevent it from overflowing. Then, lower the heat and allow the dish to simmer until the chicken bits are thoroughly cooked.
Add in the spinach, Japanese parsley, and eggs. Remove from the heat once the egg has been cooked according to one’s preference.
Add the shrimp tempura and serve.