Nabe – A Love Letter To Japan’s Most Underrated Food
By James Darnbrook
On September 11, 2014
Believe it or not but Autumn is just around the corner. In a few weeks the weather will finally cool down and the leaves will begin to turn color, signalling the beginning of Japan’s colder months. I for one cannot wait. Not because I like the cold (I hate it), but because it finally gives me a chance to break out my favourite kitchen utensil; the Nabe pot!
Personally, I think Nabe is the most underrated Japanese meal. Don’t get me wrong I love Sushi, Tempura and Ramen, but there is something truly special about Nabe. And yet, away from Japan it feels like Nabe is something of a forgotten food. For example, I’ve yet to find a Nabe restaurant outside of Japan, and on the many lists of food to try in Japan, Nabe always seems to end up at the bottom. Sometimes it doesn’t even make the list at all. And to me, this is a real shame because in my opinion Nabe is one of the best food you can eat in Japan, and there are two reasons I think this.
Nabe is one of the best food you can eat in Japan
Before I explain my reasons though, it’s probably a good idea to explain exactly what Nabe is, for those that have yet to sample its deliciousness. Nabe is essentially a hotpot made up of meat (usually thin slices of pork and juicy cuts of chicken), mushrooms (Shiitake, Enoki and Kinoko can all end up in the broth) and Japanese vegetables (this usually means carrot, napa cabbage and onion, but each Nabe is unique and I’ve seen pumpkin and even sweetcorn sneak their way in to the mix in the past).
What is most important though is the broth. The broth is what will give the vegetables and soup its flavour and here again there are plenty of choices. Miso, Dashi, Kombu, Soy and, my favourite, Kimchi are all used as base broths, and all are capable of giving your ingredients the juicy rich taste that will keep you reaching for more.Photo by OiMax
This leads me to the first reason for why I think Nabe is the best Japanese food; it has almost unlimited potential for change. No two Nabes are the same. Its brilliance is that you can always trying something new; you can add new ingredients and taste the subtle change it has on the broth, try a different broth and see how it affects all of the vegetables, or even change the order of how you put your ingredients in to gauge its effect.
Japanese cooks have been taking advantage of this potential for a long time and as such there are hundreds of different types of Nabe around Japan for you to choose from. GP’s own Lisa Hong has excellently written about her recent experience trying Chanko Nabe, the famous diet of Japan’s sumo wrestlers and something for only the hungriest people to try.
Living in Fukuoka, I have encountered the city’s speciality Nabe, Motsunabe Nabe (its key ingredient is pork intestines) several times and have always left the restaurant full and satisfied. Each city is different and so is each Nabe. They are all unique and this gives you plenty of options to try before you find your favourite.
The second reason I love Nabe, strangely has nothing to do with the food itself. Nabe isn’t just food, it’s a meal. Everyone sits around the pot for the duration of the cooking, the eating and the digesting of the meal, giving you a unique experience that you won’t get in other restaurants. It’s a chance for new friends to see who the control freak in the group is; the one who has to be in charge and just has to put this ingredient in before that one (in Japanese they even have a word for this person; Nabe Bugyo).
More traditionally, it was a chance for families that don’t have the time to eat together every day to spend some quality time together, chatting and laughing over the steam of the pot. And in this sense Nabe offers something that all the Sushi in the world doesn’t really do. It offers a window into traditional Japanese family life, and an opportunity to create a group experience that’s hard to find anywhere else.
This is why I love Nabe. It’s not fine dining, its family dining. It’s hearty food packed with flavour that can only truly be enjoyed with family and friends and this, to me, makes it the perfect pick me up for the long winter nights that are fast approaching.
If you want to try Motsunabe in Fukuoka, Yamanaka Motsunabe is definitely the place to go. And if you have your own suggestions for the best Nabe in your city and where to find it, please let us know in the comments!