A hotpot cooked at the dinner table, Nabe is the quintessential Japanese winter dining experience. With Nabe, you’re cooking and eating in “real time”, which imposes its own pace on a meal: it’s just not physically possible to eat a Nabe in a rush.
That probably helps explain why Nabe conjures up that special kind of conviviality you get when it’s cold outside and you’re huddled around a warm pot sharing a leisurely meal with friends, family or business associates.
Strictly speaking, “Nabe” refers not to the recipe but to the hardware: the clay pot itself. In Japan, everybody eats from a single Nabe, sort of like with a fondue.
All kinds of stuff can go into a nabe, from thin slices of meat (for “shabu shabu” and “sukiyaki”) to meatballs (“chanko-nabe”) to salmon and miso (“ishikari-nabe”) to poisonous blowfish (“te-chiri”).
There’s even a fun dinner party game you can play, called Yami-nabe, where you turn the lights off and each guest has to put a secret ingredient in the pot: the fun is in trying to guess what all the different ingredients are. I remember playing this one time when I was in college and a friend of mine put a McDonald’s McNugget in our yami-nabe: we never invited him again!
Out of the dozens of nabe variations out there, Yose-nabe is one of the simplest and most popular: a light broth flavored with sea kelp and starring, chicken, shrimp, tofu, mushrooms and vegetables. Readers in Quebec may think of it as “Fondue Chinoise Japonaise”, only with none of that weird curry mayonnaise. And with a lot more vegetables in it.
In Montreal, you can find Japanese Nabe clay pots starting at $25 in Chinatown, and we just use a simple portable electric burner to put on the table ($19.95 at Canadian Tire). But if you have an electric pot for Fondue Chinoise, or even a normal Fondue pot, those will work fine. You just need something to keep the ingredients simmering.
Osuimono is the other basic Japanese soup: the main alternative to miso soup when you’re making 1 soup-1 dish. At its best, osuimono is a very light broth: it should never be weighed down with too many ingredients, too much salt or – and this is a common mistake – too much soy sauce.
The basic ingredients are water, dashi, soy sauce and sake, but there’s a lot of room for variation with what you put into it. Dropping a beaten egg in it, for instance, works wonderfully. For this recipe, however, I used a filet of sole, some spring onion and lime rinds.
In Japan, I would use sea bream rather than sole, but we’re having trouble finding sea bream in Montreal, and frozen sole filets work well like this. Also, in Japan I would use yuzu rinds – which are soft enough to eat – rather than lime rinds – which you have to discard before serving. Living so far from home, you have to make some compromises.
Wait, what on earth is Chijimi doing in a Japanese food blog!? Everybody knows chijimi are Korean pancakes! True enough, though it turns out, they don’t even call them “chijimi” in (most of) Korea. At least the name is ours.
I would argue that, while Chijimi is admittedly not from Japan, it is Japanese by now. It’s so popular, so common, so often made, it’s impossible for me to think of it as “foreign” – in the same way that nobody having a taco in California feels he’s eating “foreign” food.
Don’t let the word “pancake” throw you, by the way: Chijimi is a savory dish you can eat for lunch or dinner, not at all breakfast or desert food. Chijimi are glossed as “pancakes” simply because they are flat, more or less round and made with batter, even though you only really use the batter to hold the vegetables together.
You may want to print out the characters for when you go shopping, as this vegetable can be confusing to locate in the west. It’s sold under a wide variety of names, including “Chinese leek”, “garlic chives” and “Chinese chives”. Nira is basically a type of grass. It looks like chives, but it has a very distinctive, deep, slightly spicy flavor that makes chijimi taste like chijimi.
In Montreal, you can always find the Nira in Épicerie Coréene et Japonaise on Ste. Catherine. Elsewhere, look for for places where Koreans shop – or go poke around Chinatown. And note that, while chijimi isn’t hard to make, it does take a little planning because you need to make the batter a few hours ahead of time.