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.
Like everybody else in Kansai, I’m udon-crazy: there’s no udon dish I don’t love. This particular way to make udon – basically a fast noodle stir fry – is as unpretentious as Japanese cooking gets: a casual dish served to the hungry masses, typically for lunch.
Usually, you would make yaki-udon with yakisoba sauce – a sweet-and-savory concoction close to the type of sauce we put on Japanese pancakes.
For this recipe, though, we do something a little different, relying on dashi. To make the seasoning, what we did is take some katsuobushi bonito flakes and some konbu and throw them in the blender!
Very easy…surprisingly delicious.
Udon is a traditional thick wheat noodle, extremely popular in my home region of Kansai. There are any number of ways to make Udon: recipes change from region to region and from season to season. The Japanese version of Wikipedia lists no fewer than 29 regional variations – some dryer, some wetter, some wider, some narrower, some cooked soft, others almost “al dente”.
In Shikoku – the spiritual home of udon – they eat it without any dashi, just soy sauce and, sometimes, with a raw egg on top. That doesn’t appeal to me very much, but I’ll tell you what does: Tsukimi Udon. Literally “watching-the-moon udon”, this is a seasonal automn recipe my husband loves, a noodle soup with poached eggs.
As with many udon dishes, you could also make this with soba – buckwheat noodles. You could, but I wouldn’t: as far as I’m concerned, soba is “northern” food. Where I’m from, it’s udon or bust.
Before we start, please be aware – Udon is not Italian pasta. The “common sense rules” you learned cooking spaghetti will not work here. And, whatever you do, do not cook the noodles in the broth! You really do need to cook them separately, drain them, cool them, rub them with your fingers, and only then add them to the soup. Trust me, it makes a big difference.