After graduating from university, I got a secretarial job in a Tokyo office. Among the many tasks to which I was assigned, including the ridiculous role of serving cups of tea to company guests and my male office colleagues, there was one that I loved to perform every time: finding the best hot pot (nabemono) restaurant for our office New Year’s party. I was always hungry for good food, and the search — long before the Internet — was an interesting and challenging assignment.
Nabemono is a dish in which many varieties of very fresh raw or partially prepared ingredients are cooked in a large pot over a tabletop gas burner at the dining table. The dish is consumed throughout all seasons, but winter is the best time because the dish warms up your entire body.
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Unlike most Japanese meals, for which all of the prepared foods are served in individual small plates, empty serving bowls for nabemono are placed in front of each diner. Nabemono dining is a communal affair with the large cooking pot at the center of the table shared among the diners. At the yearly party everyone, even some of my male colleagues who would never dream of setting foot in a kitchen, helped cook the dish at the table while sipping beer or sake. The animated conversation ranged from how to cook the ingredients correctly to critiques of recent ball games. When the food is cooked, each diner carefully fetches the very hot items from the pot, transferring them into their own small bowl. There is often dipping sauce for each diner in small cups. The cooking is done in several batches. After the first batch is cooked and consumed, a second batch of ingredients is added to the pot. This repeated process continues until all is consumed. It’s a body and spirit warming, fun meal.
There are more than a hundred nabemono dishes across Japan, many of regional origin that make use of local ingredients. Some of the popular ones that Americans may recognize include shabu shabu (paper thin sliced beef cooked along with vegetables in kelp stock and served with flavored sauce) and sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef cooked in sweetened soy sauce along with vegetables). Other popular nabemono dishes employ tofu, shelled oysters, chicken, pork, assorted seafood, duck or vegetables.
One attribute common to all nabemono dishes is that they’re filled with plenty of vegetables, typically about 50% protein and 50% vegetables. Nabemono dishes, therefore, are a wonderful way to enjoy more vegetables in your diet. If you wish, a 100% vegetarian or vegan nabemono can be quite good, but I always like to include some protein in my nabemono to make the meal more satisfying in flavor and more balanced nutritionally.
The nabemono dining style originated in rural Japan, particularly the cold north. A large house, typically, was occupied by three or four generations of family members and equipped with an irori hearth at its center. This hearth was large enough so that all family members could sit around the fire for meals and warmth. A long iron pole with a hooked end was hung from the ceiling over the hearth and the hook held a large iron cooking pot that was placed directly over the fire. Meals were cooked in this one pot and shared by all.
However, building an irori hearth in a modern urban house with a single-generation family is not at all practical. In 1969, Iwatani Company invented a table top butane gas burner, thereby allowing Japanese family to enjoy nabemono anytime, anyplace. A slightly improved version of that tabletop gas burner is still in production, and is a very convenient piece of equipment even in American kitchen. I highly recommend that you get one (or even and electric or induction version) and start making nabemono and other tabletop fare at your home.
One special joy of nabemono dining comes at the very end of the meal, when the ingredients have all been cooked. You’ll find a highly flavored, concentrated sauce on the bottom of the pot that is perfect to mix with cooked rice for a very special dish. We add the cooked rice and some water, if necessary, and cook it until each grain of rice absorbs the full flavor of the sauce and is well heated. The rice is wonderfully delicious as is, or you can break one or two eggs into the pot, break the yolks, stir with the rice and cook until the eggs are barely done.
Here is a sukiyaki recipe adopted from “Hiroko’s American Kitchen“ (page 161). I created this recipe so that you can enjoy the traditional full flavor of sukiyaki meal without getting any special tools or ingredients such as table top gas burner and thinly sliced meat. This recipe also has three times more vegetables than meat. You will prepare this sukiyaki meal in a skillet in the kitchen and serve it at the table.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: Four servings
6 large cremini mushrooms
2 ounces carrot
6 ounces cabbage
10 ounces purple potato
2 ounces red bell pepper
2 ounces orange bell pepper
7 ounces red Swiss chard
2 boned short-rib (1 pound)
8 cipollini onions, peeled
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons butter
4 to 6 tablespoons shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)
1/2 cup sake
1/2 cup water
1. Cut each mushroom in quarters. Cut the carrot, cabbage, purple potato, red bell pepper and orange bell pepper into bite sized pieces. Cut the Swiss chard into half lengthwise in the center along the stem, and then, into 2-inch thick slices crosswise. Cut each short-rib into about 10 thin slices (about 2-inch x 2-inch square).
2. Place the potato and cipollini onion in a large pot with cold water to cover over high heat, bring it to a simmer, and cook about 7 minutes. After cooking the potato and cipollini for 7 minutes add the carrot, cabbage and bell peppers to the pot. Cook the vegetables for 3 more minutes. Drain all of the cooked vegetables in a strainer and air dry.
3. Season the beef with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat and sprinkle half of the sugar over the butter. Add the beef, sprinkle the remaining sugar over the beef, and cook the beef until both sides are golden, or for about 5 to 6 minutes total. Transfer the beef to a platter.
4. In a small saucepan add the sake and shoyu and cook it over high heat until the volume reduces to half. Turn off the heat.
5. Add the mushrooms, stem part of the Swiss chard and drained vegetables to the skillet. Cook the vegetables until the surfaces of each vegetable are lightly golden, or for about 3-4 minutes. Turn the vegetables once over for even browning. Turn off the heat.
6. Push the vegetables to one side of the skillet and return the beef to the skillet. Pour the reduced sake and shoyu over the beef and vegetables and turn on the heat to medium-high heat. Add the leafy part of the Swiss chard to the skillet and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, frequently basting the beef and vegetables with the sauce.
7. Divide the vegetables and beef among deep bowls and serve.
Main photo: Cooked nabemono ingredients. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo