When the biting cold of winter is in the air, it’s time to cozy up with something hearty, healthy, and comforting - welcome to nabe season! This winter staple in Japan will warm you right up and get you through those cold winter days.
What is nabe?
Nabe is the Japanese-style of hot pot where various ingredients are placed in one pot with some kind of broth and cooked over a heating element placed in the center of a table. It can be eaten at a restaurant or at home.
So what does nabe mean in Japanese? While nabe is the name of the dish, the word itself means pot (which can also be called donabe), specifically a ceramic pot, but other types can be used as well. These days there are many different shapes and sizes of nabe hot pots, big ones for sharing with large groups and even ones made for individual use.
The history of nabe
A long time ago, Japanese households contained a hearth called irori and cooked foods over a fire in clay pots. These foods were often served separately, and the food was not eaten together. This is very unlike the nabe of today where everyone gathers and enjoys the meal together at the same table. Around the Edo period is when this more familiar form of nabe consumption began.
What is the difference between nabe and sukiyaki?
There are many similar dishes to nabe, including sukiyaki. But what is the difference? Sukiyaki is very similar and can even be considered a type of nabe, but typically the ingredients are dipped in a dish of raw egg before eating them.
There is another dish similar to nabe called shabu-shabu. However, the star of shabu-shabu is the meat. It is very thinly sliced and placed in the boiling broth for a short time until cooked and then can be dipped in various sauces before eating. With nabe, everything is cooked together in one pot at the same time.
Types of nabe
While nabe might seem like a simple dish of just a broth with a bunch of proteins and vegetables in it, the flavors can be quite complex and even showcase specialties from various regions in Japan. Some popular types of nabe are:
- Yose nabe
- Tonyu nabe
- Chanko nabe
- Ishikari nabe
- Motsu nabe
- Mizutaki nabe
- Kimchi nabe
- Kiritanpo nabe
- Yudofu nabe
- Kani nabe
Yose nabe is the perfect type of nabe to start with if you’ve never made it before since basically anything goes - you can add whatever ingredients you like. I used to make this during winter to use up whatever vegetables and meat I had left over at the end of the week. You can use any broth flavor for this from chicken to miso or even tomato.
Tonyu means soymilk and that’s just what the broth of this nabe contains. It’s silky, sweet, and pretty healthy with the amount of vegetables it contains. Chicken or other proteins are also added. Because of the soy milk in the broth, a thin skin forms at the top while cooking called yuba. It’s quite tasty and worth a try!
This nabe is just right for a sumo wrestler - really! This protein-packed pot of power is what sumo wrestlers eat to gain weight and bulk up. Usually made with a hearty helping of chicken, beef, pork, or sometimes seafood, this type of nabe also contains various vegetables and udon noodles. Of course, you don’t need to be a sumo wrestler to enjoy this; you can try it for yourself at one of the six best chanko nabe restaurants in Tokyo.
This is a nabe type from all the way up north in Hokkaido. This is a delightful seafood-filled dish containing salmon, shellfish and whatever is in season. These are cooked in a miso broth filled to the brim with potatoes and other vegetables.
This nabe hails from Fukuoka and is packed with motsu or offal (intestines). The broth is usually miso based with lots of garlic, chili pepper, with cabbage and tofu added in. It’s then topped beautifully with nira, a type of chive. It is quite a heavy and fatty nabe which makes it perfect for those cold, deep winter days.
This is another nabe from Fukuoka, but unlike motsunabe, mizutaki nabe is quite light. Pieces of chicken, tofu and a variety of vegetables are cooked together in a delicate broth then enjoyed with a bit of ponzu, a citrusy sauce.
Kimchi is from Korea, of course, but it has become quite a popular flavor in Japan. The broth is not as spicy as the kimchi-jjigae this is based off and contains a bit of miso to add a richer (and less spicy) flavor. Filled with meats, tofu, cabbage, and even noodles, this nabe will warm you right up from the inside out.
This is a popular type of nabe from the Tohoku region of Japan. What makes this nabe unique is that is contains mochi, soft rice cakes. These are made into cylindrical shapes and cooked on skewers until lightly roasted. The rice cakes are then added to the broth, which is miso-based and full of vegetables.
While most nabe contains some sort of meat or fish, the star of this nabe from Kyoto is tofu. It is made with a light broth and eaten with ponzu and green onions. It’s quite a healthy version of nabe that is more of a side dish than a full meal.
Kani means crab, and this crab hot pot from Hokkaido is packed with flavor and decadence. The crab is usually cooked in the nabe pot with its shell to really give the broth a deep flavor. Seasonal vegetables are added as well.
How to enjoy nabe
So, how do you eat nabe? Just like the dish itself, consuming it is not too complicated. First you set a nabe pot filled with broth and all your ingredients in the middle of the table on some form of a portable gas burner or hot plate.
There is no particular order to the ingredients, but personally, I like putting meat and more flavorful ingredients in first to infuse into the broth, then vegetables that take the longest to cook, and then faster-cooking ingredients like cabbage and tofu.
Turn the heat up and let it simmer and once everything is cooked to your liking, it’s time to eat, but do not go digging around the ingredients with your own chopsticks. Unless you’re eating it on your own, this is a communal dish so use communal chopsticks and a ladle to get ingredients into your individual bowl.
Do not stir the pot as ingredients like tofu can break apart. And don’t just take the things you like either! Nabe is about balancing flavors and all ingredients are to be enjoyed (with the exception of allergies, of course).
Often times, but not always, there is a “nabe master” called the nabebugyo who dishes out the ingredients to everyone and basically takes command of the pot. They are the unsung heroes of the nabe experience as they make sure nothing gets overcooked and everyone is getting full.
Once everyone has had their fill and the pot is nearly empty, there's no reason to waste the broth! It’s time for the shime - starchy ingredients, like rice or nabe udon noodles, you add at the end to soak up that savory goodness. With the shime, you are guaranteed to feel satisfied and full after every nabe meal.
Whichever type of nabe you choose, you really can’t go wrong. Escape the cold and cozy up with some friends and Japanese hot pot today.