Typically eaten during winter, nabe — also known as hot pot — is soul food for people in Japan. So what makes it so popular?
It’s a one-pot meal
Nabe is one of the easiest Japanese meals to prepare — all you need is a good umami-laden soup base, fresh ingredients and, of course, a good pot. Traditionally, nabe is cooked in a claypot as the material is porous but strong and has high heat resistance.
Every region has their specialty…
One of the most popular types of nabemono is sukiyaki, which features a shoyu and mirin soup base, and ingredients like thinly sliced beef, tofu and leek. If you’re travelling through the Kanto region in eastern Japan, you’re likely to try the version where the ingredients are simmered together with the soup base. However, in the Kansai region (western Japan), the meat is heated in the pot first. Only when the meat is almost cooked do you add the sugar, mirin and shoyu. The vegetables and other ingredients are added last.
Another popular type of nabemono is the yosenabe, where almost everything goes. Simply fill the pot with dashi, add your preferred seasonings and throw in any ingredients you like – from meat to seafood to vegetables. There are no specific rules when it comes to yosenabe, so every region (and perhaps every family) has their own unique recipe.
… but there are some particularly unique variants.
In the western region of Kansai, wild game is still hunted in the mountains surrounding Gifu and Hyogo prefectures. As such, this area is popular for its botannabe, which features wild boar meat cooked in a red miso broth until the gamey, fatty meat becomes tender.
Motsunabe, a specialty in Fukuoka
In Fukuoka, the largest city of Kyushu island, the locals enjoy a type of nabe known as mizutaki, where a simple broth of kelp and water is enhanced with ingredients such as chicken, chicken meatballs, leek and Chinse cabbage. Another type of hot pot enjoyed in Fukuoka is the motsunabe, where the soup base is usually made with soy sauce or miso, and the main ingredient is beef innards, which lend the soup a rich and robust flavour. Up north in Hokkaido, the northerners enjoy ishikarinabe, which is prepared using Hokkaido salmon and hearty vegetables, like potatoes and corn, in a soup base of miso and milk.
Ishikarinabe, a specialty in Hokkaido
There are food festivals dedicated to nabe.
The annual Nabe Festival in Hibiya Park, Tokyo
Every November, thousands of people crowd Hibiya Park in Tokyo to sample nabe from all over the country at Nabe Festival. If you’re visiting the city of Takaoka in January, be sure to check out the Japan Sea Takaoka Nabe Festival, which pays tribute to the seafood nabe that is unique to this region. In Hokkaido, the annual Esashi Nabe festival takes place every February, serving up more than 20 kinds of nabe alongside delicious snacks such as crab rice, sea urchin rice and seafood croquettes.
Nabe Festival is a great way to try different types of nabe from all over Japan
Eating nabe warms the stomach and the soul
In the cookbook “Donabe: Classic and Modern Clay Pot Cooking” co-authored by Naoko Takei Moore and Kyle Connaughton, the writers talk about the joys of nabe. Describing the uniquely Japanese concept of “ichigo-ichie”, which means “for this moment only”, they write, “This expression evokes how sharing a hot pot meal at the same table creates an intimate communal experience… and it teaches the concept of ichigo-ichie [where] every moment is a once-in-a-lifetime treasure.”
Try these other warm dishes from different spots in Asia.