Warming up winter with Nabe

By Jen Thwaites

Your students are shivering their way through lessons, you don’t dare brave school without plastering kairo all over your body and now you don’t even have the thought of an impending Christmas escape to somewhere hot to cheer you up. It’s definitely January in Japan. Japan goes some way to making up for its lack of central heating with numerous winter wonders: heated carpets, the kotatsuonsen and those little blankets that people cart around to work, libraries, cafes etc., to name but a few. For me, however, the absolute best thing about winter in Japan has to be the obsession with nabemono: literally “cooking pot” + “things/stuff”, and more commonly called simply nabe, which will quickly and easily warm the cockles of your heart and leave you feeling much more positive about life.
The term nabe refers to all kinds of Japanese steamboat and one-pot (clay or cast thick iron) dishes, which are usually soups and stews, and are are commonly eaten in winter. It is generally eaten as a shared dish with diners dipping into the communal pot which is heated by a table-top stove. Nabe can be lightly flavoured with kombu seaweed, and served with various dipping sauces, or strongly flavoured with miso, soy sauce and dashi, and eaten as it is. My own approach to nabe is rather haphazard: go to supermarket starving hungry, throw random assortment of veggies, meat and tofu into trolley, run home, chop on washing machine lid (small apartment), chuck everything into nabe pot along with contents of broth sachet, cook and devour. However, a little digging around on the internet uncovers a plethora of nabe varieties to choose from, and given that it’s easy, healthy (well, apart from the sesame dip!), excellent for communal dining, and cheap (if you can find a few friends to share the cost), there’s no excuse not to give nabe a go at home.  So, here are a few nabe ideas to get your mouth watering:
1. Chankonabe: this dish was originally served only to sumo wrestlers to help them gain weight and, as such, it is typically made with more ingredients than other types of nabe. It involves chicken, daikon radish, tofu, carrots, aubergine, leeks, shitake mushrooms, meatballs and udon cooked in a broth made from boiling chicken bones with water, soy sauce, salt and sake for a few hours.  Alternatively, you can pick up a sachet from your local supermarket! Don’t worry: chankonabe has no magical weight-gain-inducing properties.  You’ll have to eat it in sumo-wrestler quantities to develop the same physique! This dish is always made with chicken rather than beef because cows keep all four limbs on the ground just as a defeated sumo-wrestler does, and are therefore considered unlucky. And don’t use fish-based dashi stock for the broth either: sumo wrestlers need their arms and legs, and limbless fish are also unlucky.
2. Sukiyaki: thinly-sliced meat, tofu, vegetables and shirataki (konnyaku noodles). The ingredients are stewed in sweetened soy and eaten with a raw egg dip.
3. Oden: boiled eggs, daikon radish, fish cakes, konnyaku and kombu seaweed boiled over many hours in a light, soy-flavoured dashi stock. Other ingredients include octopus, surimi and, in Okinawa, pig trotters!
4. Motsunabe: made with beef or pork offal in a soy sauce or miso-based soup. It became popular nationwide in the 1990s because of its reasonable price and good taste, after originating in Fukuoka. It is usual to boil the offal with garlic, chives and cabbage. Then champon noodles (a type of ramen) are cooked in the remaining liquid.
5. Shabu shabu: Japanese style meat fondue. Thinly-sliced meat, vegetables and tofu are dipped into a hot soup and then into a ponzu or sesame sauce before being eaten.
If you aren’t taken with any of the above, you can always try yosenabe: putting anything you fancy in a miso or soy-based broth.  Or, for a spicier dish, pick up a sachet of kimuchi nabe broth and some kimuchi from the supermarket. Hiroshima is famous for oyster nabe, and you will find oyster-flavoured broth locally. Or check out other areas’ nabe specialties, such as Ishikari-nabe (salmon stewed in miso-broth with vegetables) in Hokkaido.
Finally, my top tip: if you’re making kimuchi nabe and you have broth left when all the meat and veggies have been eaten, pour in a beaten egg for each diner and add cooked rice. Let the egg cook and serve for a delicious, filling end to a wonderful nabe meal.
So go out and get a nabe pot and beat the Japan winter blues!
Check out about.com for nabe recipes.