What’s your idea of winter comfort food? Ask somebody who’s Japanese, and the first thing that comes to mind is nabemono: Japanese hotpot.
Nabemono isn’t really a dish, it’s more like a way of eating. Together with friends or family, you sit around a big clay pot where all kinds of mushrooms, winter vegetables and fish or meat are simmering, and share the bounty as it cooks before your eyes. Ingredients go in a little bit at a time, and come out a little bit at a time, imprinting a relaxed, leisurely pace on the meal. Of course, while you’re waiting for each new ingredient to cook, you drink sake. When the weather outside is frightful, a nabe is delightful!
Nabemono is catchall term that refers to a family of hot pot specialties, the best known of which is sukiyaki (beef dressed with raw egg), but which also includes mizutaki (with chicken and tofu), ishikari-nabe (with salmon and potatoes in miso-butter soup), jingisukan-nabe (with lamb) and shabu-shabu (with barely cooked beef). Chanko-nabe (with chicken and meatballs) is the traditional meal for sumo wrestlers, while yudofu (the plainest, tofu-based nabe) is a favorite at Buddhist temples.
Out of all these nabemono dishes, I think fuguchiri (sometimes known as tecchiri) is the best. Fuguchiri is nabe made with fugu (blowfish). And winter is its season. The fugu fillets are cooked in a sea kelp stock with vegetables in a donabe (clay pot). Blowfish has a unique mouthfeel unlike any other fish’s, heightened by a fragrant and tart ponzu sauce. Shirako—blowfish milt—is an indispensable ingredient for real fuguchiri. Admittedly, the idea of eating fish seminal fluid is upsetting to some foreigners—including many who are quite happy to eat fish eggs. Just remember that shirako is one of the most highly prized specialties of the Japanese winter table: its rich and unctuous taste is something you really should try at least once in your lifetime.
Since it’s famously poisonous, some Westerners are afraid of eating blowfish. These days, though, there’s really nothing to worry about: well-carved fish are not at all dangerous. In Japan, it’s actually illegal to carve blowfish without a strictly regulated license, so all the blowfish you find in restaurants or at fish markets is safe. Urban lore to the contrary, cases of fugu poisoning are exceedingly rare.
While every kind of nabemono will include a lot of vegetables, the shape and material of the pot will differ from one nabemono to the next, as will the sauce the other ingredients. What doesn’t change is the experience, the special kind of intimacy that comes from slowly sharing a meal with those closest to you out of a single pot.
Of course, eating from a single communal pot is common throughout East Asia. According to Naomichi Ishige, a Japanese anthropologist, this has to do with the use of chopsticks and charcoal. In the days before electricity, charcoal was the only cooking fuel that didn’t produce an overwhelming amount of smoke: just what you need to cook at the table. As it happens, charcoal use has been common in East Asia for centuries. And can you imagine eating directly from the pot with a knife and fork? Chopsticks are the other key that makes eating from a communal pot possible and fun.
Considering how popular it has become, it’s somewhat surprising that nabemono only became established in Japan about a century ago. Before then, rather than sitting around a single large table, people ate using individual, tray-like tables. These days we don’t use individual trays anymore, yet in a Japanese household, chopsticks and rice bowls are as personal as your toothbrush.
Since it involves sharing these very personal items, in Japan, nabemono is not considered an appropriate meal when meeting people for the first time. In a culture that values manners so highly, eating from a single pot implies a kind of “accepted rudeness”; it assumes familiarity and intimacy between the people sharing the meal. Certainly, you wouldn’t want to share a nabemono with someone you don’t know well.
It says something about the strains of contemporary life that, in Japan, “solo-nabe” (nabemono for one) is more and more common. I think that’s tragic; even nabemono for two seems a little sad to me. In my opinion, you can fully enjoy nabemono only with a big group of family or friends. Only then, through the banter and the sake, will you get that special sense of warmth from within that comes from crowding around a pot together, not just because what you’re eating is hot, but because the atmosphere nabemono creates is so special.
Nabemono isn’t just a way to cook; it’s a way of bringing people together.
Kanako Noda started helping her mom make dinner in Shiga, Japan, at the age of four. An artist based in Montréal by day, she evangelizes on the Japanese way of eating by night. "There's a fantastic, dazzling variety of Japanese dishes that Americans keep missing," she says, "because they can't see past the thick undergrowth of sushi bars everywhere." Kanako believes in real food made by real people using real ingredients, and is allergic to food gimmicks, straight-from-the-lab ingredients and diet fads of all kinds. Most of all, she's into introducing Westerners to Japanese common sense on what you should eat, when, how much, how and with whom. Her Japanese home cooking recipe blog is at KanakosKitchen.com.