I didn’t realize that Japan has so many hot pot dishes. All you ever see in the states is miso soup, ramen, and now a few chic Shabu Shabu spots. Sometimes you can find sukiyaki in the States. I never thought of Japanese cuisine having a lot of soups and stews until I moved here, and it wasn’t until fall of 2013 that I particularly noticed.
This was my first autumn in Japan, and living in Tohoku made me aware of a special dish from the area, imoni. Imoni is not only a dish, it is a time to cook with friends and family. It can best be related to the American tradition of Thanksgiving, which is non-existent in Japan (obviously, no pilgrims and such). I had the good fortune to be invited to an imoni party hosted by the Tohoku Gakuin International Club. On a clear, crisp day in October, a large group of students gathered in a park and cooked huge pots of stew for everyone to share. Miyagi imoni is made with miso and pork, Yamagata-style is soy sauce and beef. We tried both and had a wonderful time eating and chatting with lots of English majors in the club. Imoni is so important in Yamagata, that they often make a huge pot during their autumn festival, that can feed thousands of people. I’m not kidding. 30,000 servings.
Why am I cooking in the shower? It’s kind of a funny story…
For Christmas, we attended a nabe party. Nabe, or nabemono, is also a hot pot dish meant to be cooked in a group setting. Usually, a special burner is placed in one’s living room and the soup is cooked in a clay pot. While imoni is more of a hearty stew, nabe is a lighter broth in various flavors. Some key ingredients in imoni are potatoes, daikon, taro root, negi (Japanese onion) and konnyaku (a gelatinous mass of “yam” fiber unique to Japan). Nabe is lighter, with leafy cabbage, spouts, sliced carrot, enoki mushrooms and negi. A variation of nabe is chankonabe, also known as sumo stew because it is a traditional diet staple of the sumo wrestlers.
You can make the broth for nabe from scratch, or buy it at the grocery store. In winter, the stores in Japan stock tons of this stuff. A bag will run around $2-$3, and serves four, so I definitely recommend saving yourself the trouble and buying it. I don’t know about Asian grocers in the USA, but just look for something like this bag on the right:
The different flavors of nabe will determine what else you add in. Seafood broth will obviously compliment shrimp, scallops, fish or all three. Kimchi nabe is a little spicy, and works well with beef, pork or chicken. Tomato broth is delicious with just about anything, and I have seen onion and bean sprout flavors as well. Tofu is a nice addition, especially if you want a vegetarian nabe.
The best thing about making nabe is time, since it takes hardly any. Actual recipe: Heat the broth and toss in your choice of chopped veggie and meat. Stir occasionally. Serve hot.
The stores in Japan will also sell pre-packaged mixes of chopped vegetables, seafood and other collections of ingredients for nabe, so it is quite possibly the easiest dinner you can have. Traditionally, if you are eating the nabe with a group of people, you remove just the fillings, and leave most of the broth in the pot. Then you can throw in new ingredients to cook, while you enjoy the previous batch. Since I usually cook for just two, I treat the nabe more like soup and eat it broth and all. I also usually make a little rice to go on the side, but it’s not necessary. The next morning, I add the leftover rice to the pot and reheat the remaining soup for breakfast.
So far, my favorites have been tomato and kimchi broths with chicken. There are many different brands, but it seems that the slightly more expensive bags o’ broth ($3) have better flavor and are not quite as salty. We have this dish at least once a week now, when I don’t feel like cooking, and I’ve discovered a type of mushroom that Andrew will eat (enoki!) so it’s a win-win. Make a nabe pot for yourself tonight and experience a delicious and healthy taste of Japan.