|We often think of Japan as a single island, but it's actually made up of four large islands, Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku, and thousands of smaller ones. Climate varies from island to island, so while Hokkaido may experience cold and snowy winters, Shikoku's winter might be milder.
As different as the weather may be, there is one common culinary thread that unites all of Japan. About mid-autumn, when the days start to get colder, nabemono dishes begin to appear on tables in restaurants and homes. Nabemono, a hearty wintertime specialty, is a Japanese term with several translations that all mean pretty much the same: one pot cookery, quick-cooked stew, even the informal "things-in-a-pot." It also refers to a group of shared one-pot meals that are popular in Japan, since it allows every diner at the table to participate in the cooking process.
The down-to-earth appeal and rustic decor of most nabemono restaurants reflect nabemono's humble origins in Japan's rural farming regions. Each table is equipped with a small gas burner, and once lit, a donabe pot filled with broth is placed on top and brought to a boil. A donabe pot is a special earthenware dish crafted from clay, glazed on the inside and unglazed on the bottom outside. It is heat resistant and meant to be placed directly on the burner or in the oven. Because it retains heat well, and distributes it evenly, it makes an ideal cooking vessel for hundreds of nabemono combinations, stews, simmered dishes, or other ethnic casseroles.
When the broth begins to bubble, serving trays filled with various raw foods are brought to the table, and the cooking begins. Food items are added to the pot piece by piece. Since nabe dishes cook quickly, individual ingredients retain their flavor and shape. Once cooked, each item is pulled out of the pot, dipped into each person's own dish of grated daikon (Japanese horseradish) or ponzu (a sauce made from soy sauce, vinegar, a seaweed known as konbu, and dashi, a liquid made by pouring hot water through dried bonito fish shavings) for seasoning, and eaten.
Seafood items such as fish and shrimp, and vegetables such as mushrooms and carrots are usually added first, since these take longer to cook. Delicate items such as tofu should be carefully watched while cooking, since they can easily be overcooked, and tend to fall apart. Exotic meats such as wild boar, horse and venison can also be cooked nabemono-style, though you'll probably find them offered more in regional Japanese restaurants. The meal ends with udon noodles (traditional Japanese noodles made from wheat flour) or rice, placed in the pot to absorb the remaining broth, which will be quite tasty and flavorful by then.
There are many different versions of nabemono, depending on the ingredients used. Oysters, shrimp, scallops, chicken, mushroom, cabbage, and beef are some of the more popular choices (contrary to common misconceptions that most Japanese people do not eat beef). Chanko-nabe is made with chicken, seafood, potatoes and other vegetables, and is the essential diet of Japanese sumo wrestlers, who find them satisfying and filling. Yosenabe is the Japanese version of bouillabaisse. Typical ingredients for this dish include fish, shellfish, and a variety of vegetables. Oden is the dish most Westerners will recognize as stew. It may or may not be cooked at the table, and tastes best when left to simmer for a long time. Its ingredients include chicken, seafood, eggs, potatoes, carrots and other Japanese vegetables.
The internationally known Sukiyaki and Shabu-Shabu are two nabemono dishes that are not cooked in a donabe pot. Sukiyaki's main ingredient is the thin slices of beef that's cooked simultaneously with vegetables and tofu in a soy sauce flavored soup. Traditionally, everyone will take what they want from the pot, and dip it in raw egg before consuming. For food safety reasons, though, that last step is sometimes skipped.
Shabu-Shabu gets it name from the sound thin slices of meat (usually beef) make when swished through boiling dashi broth. Paper-thin slices of meat and vegetables are dipped into the broth to cook, then dipped into ponzu or miso (made of sesame seeds and soybean paste) sauce.
Not all nabemono dishes are communal and fondue-style. Some are prepared by adding ingredients one at a time, and when the dish is ready, is served family sit-down style. No matter the manner in which nabemono is cooked, it all boils down to one thing. The concept behind a one-pot dish is that it is a social event, and brings people together. It celebrates family and friendships, as well as the pure, simple essence of food. What better way is there to warm your stomach, heart and soul during the winter months?
Most nabemono recipes ask for ingredients that may be unfamiliar and/or not readily available in supermarkets, which is why we think improvising is one of the best ways to help you discover for yourself how the combination of flavors, textures and food work together to create the pleasing and palatable effect that makes nabemono so popular in Japan. Adjust your creations to suit your tastes, and watch them become favorite recipes that will be passed down to generations to come.
Clean and cut all food items into bite-size pieces. Arrange on platters.
SEAFOOD - clams, shrimp, mussels, crabs, lobsters, fish (such as sea bass, mackerel)
VEGETABLES - tofu, mushrooms, carrots, Chinese cabbage, watercress, snow peas, spinach
MEATS - beef, steak, chicken
BROTH (in which to cook ingredients) - beef or chicken
CONDIMENTS (to season cooked foods) - soy sauce, oyster sauce, mustard, lemon juice
FINALE - white rice or Japanese-style noodle
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