While I was living in Osaka, the winter months were anything but bearable. Now I know some of you might be thinking that I'm some sort of Los Angeles wuss when it comes to cold weather. But allow me to add that my apartment in Osaka was surrounded by concrete walls, no hot water except for my old school bath tub, and no central heating. My only source of heat came from a portable gas heater that was only able to heat one room at a time and my beloved kotatsu table which I eventually slept in the entire winter. Life during the extremely cold winter months were simply depressing. But one of the main things that got me through winter in Japan were comforting nabemono dinners.
Nabemono or nabe, is a very traditional way of cooking and eating in Japan during the winter months. It's really not suppose to be a fancy meal like what most people here are used to seeing at Shabu Shabu joints. Instead, most nabe meals are eaten communally at home with fresh vegetables, tofu, and meats all over a cozy and warm kotatsu table. The Japanese love for nabe time is equivalent to American's love for a summertime barbeque.
On Friday night, I invited our eating buddies M & J over for shabu shabu night. With D stuck at work and M&J stuck in traffic, I had a lot of time prepping the veggies and getting my kotatsu table ready for some shabu shabu madness.
When it comes to meat for nabe, you really don't need to spend a lot of money on high grades of meat. You could, but you really don't have to. The meat I got was about $5/lb for shabu shabu chuck roast. As long as it is sliced thin and it has a nice proportion of fat, it'll be fine.
The key to good shabu shabu is not only fresh ingredients, but also in the dipping sauces. Buy a good ponzu sauce. I'd suggest really spending more for a good ponzu over the generic ponzu sauce that they sell at Japanese markets. You also should have a good gomadare (sesame dipping sauce). A suribachi (Japanese pestle and mortar) will come in handy to freshly grind sesame seeds. Add the fresh goma to your gomadare, it does wonders!
Our Friday night Shabu Shabu dinner was great. Really, any dinner eaten communally with good friends and fresh ingredients will be great.
Types of Nabemono:
Chanko Nabe: Nabe originally made as the staple diet for sumo wrestlers. Chanko nabe is the heartiest of them all. It's also my favorite. Most chanko nabe's start off with miso/sake dashi (broth). Recipes vary depending on the sumo stable. But chanko nabe has definitely gotten more popular with non-sumo eaters. The best chanko nabe contains tsukune (chicken meatballs) IMO.
Kimchee Nabe: Although people in Japan aren't blessed with the genes to withstand anything spicy, they love to tease themselves with a little kick of kimchee. Koreans would laugh at the mildness of this hot pot, but in general, kimchee nabe is the most flavorful of all nabe's. Most kimchee nabes start off with a kimchee and goma (sesame) or miso dashi. And you can add the usual hot pot ingredients like chinese cabbage, tofu, mushrooms, beef, shrimp, and udon.
Shabu Shabu: The most popular of all nabe's, well, at least in LA. Shabu shabu is the simplest of all nabe's. Dashi (broth) is made from hot water and wakame (seaweed). It's pretty boring. But you have to depend on your ponzu and gomadare (sesame sauce) for flavor. Shabu shabu is named after the sound of quickly swishing your thinly sliced meats into boiling hot water..."shabu shabu."
Sukiyaki: With a dashi consisting of soy sauce, mirin, and sugar, sukiyaki is the sweetest of them all. It's also my least favorite. I had sukiyaki with Matsusaka beef, the king of beef for sukiyaki and other nabe dishes. It's incredible beef, but the sukiyaki's sweetness overpowered the most famous beef in Japan. (Yes, in Japan, Matsusaka beef is more famous than Kobe beef.)
Basic Nabemono needs:
Butane burner - under $10 at Marukai in Gardena
Nabe (clay pot) - Nabe's are on sale for $5 to $25 at Marukai depending on the size. I've even found one-person nabes for $1!
Vegetables - Chinese cabbage, various mushrooms (i.e. enoki, maitake, bunashimeji, shiitake), Negi (Japanese green onions), carrots, spinach, and pretty much any quick cooking vegetable that you want to throw in.
Tofu - Usually use a firm tofu. Yaki (grilled) tofu is even better.
Meat - I'm a big fan of beef, so I have to have beef with any of my nabe's. During fall and winter, thin slices of chuck roast and ribeye are on sale at Japanese markets. Pork is another alternative. But I'm not a big fan of pork in nabe. It's just not as tasty as beef. Ground chicken can also be seasoned and formed for tsukune (chicken balls).
Seafood - I've had nabe with salmon and cod. Crab and shrimp are superb in a chanko or kimchee nabe!
Noodles - Udon is my favorite choice of noodles for any hot pot. Frozen udon is perfect for nabe. You can also use super healthy Shirataki (yam) noodles.
Other nabemono articles:
Tokyo Food Page