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Seasonal spotlight: Nabe

December 6, 2010
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A note before our regular entry: It turned out that I missed posting during the first week of December. The reason is that I had a job change that was long thought about but ended up happening somewhat suddenly – I left my job at the translation company I worked for and am now working as a freelance translator. It’s been a very busy few weeks for me but I’m slowly getting into more of a regular routine. I may miss a post here and there in December, but since I’m the kind of person who requires a schedule I’m going to do my best to keep things going according to plan!



Nabe with mushrooms, mizuna, bean sprouts, and fried tofu


My husband Tsuyoshi grew up in Fukushima Prefecture, which is a few hours north of the Tokyo area. There’s not a whole lot of geographical distance between here and there, but there are plenty of linguistic and cultural differences (such as a whole different dialect that is still really difficult for me to understand).

Another big difference is that, unlike Tokyo, Fukushima winters are really, really cold. Or rather, Fukushima is significantly less cold than some places I’ve lived like Minnesota and Idaho, but like most rural areas in Japan the homes in Fukushima are not insulated. Nor do Japanese houses have central heating, meaning that people rely on space heaters that run on electricity or oil. The end result of this is that the temperature inside is usually only a few degrees warmer than the temperature outside, and everyone walks around wearing six layers of clothing when they aren’t huddled underneath a kotatsu (a type of low table enclosed in a blanket with a heater inside) or sitting in a warm bath.

Why don’t Japanese people insulate their homes nor have central heating? I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody else does either. I’ve heard a range of speculations including the theory that Japanese homes are made to let breezes through to be comfortable in the summer and prevent humidity and the theory that people are afraid that central heating will cost more. Maybe it’s a conspiracy headed by the companies that sell the popular heating pads that people stick to their bodies underneath their clothing. Regardless of the reason, even after five years here I still find it baffling to see people freezing in their own houses in a country where even the toilet seats are electronically programmed and kindergarten students use cell phones that are more advanced than the computers owned by most Americans.

There is one other thing to ensure that you survive the winter in a drafty Japanese house: nabe. The word “nabe” in Japanese just means “pot,” but if someone talks about eating “nabe” or “nabemono” they are referring to a type of communal cuisine in which a variety of ingredients are simmered – usually right at the table – in a broth that becomes more flavorful the longer the dinner stretches on. There is an almost endless variety of nabe out there that varies by cooking style, personal preference, and region. English speakers are probably most familiar with sukiyaki, in which beef and vegetables are cooked in an iron pot. Some other popular varieties are mizutaki (vegetables and chicken cooked in a mildly flavored broth), chanko nabe (a filling type of hot pot made with fish and meat that is the traditional food of sumo wrestlers), tōnyu nabe (nabe made with soy milk), motsu nabe (hot pot made with offal meat), and many others. Japanese people also love nabemono influenced by Korean cuisine, such as kimchi jjigae.

Common nabe ingredients include mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, tofu, bean sprouts, and long onion

When eating nabe, everyone gathers around the table and adds different vegetables and other ingredients to the simmering pot as the mood strikes. This causes the flavor of the soup to change over the course of the meal. The close to the meal is usually in the form of udon or other noodles that are added to the pot when most of the vegetables are gone, although some people instead add rice to make a savory and flavorful rice porridge.

During the winter months my husband and I eat nabe almost every weekend. Making the nabe is usually his job, but we almost always add some kind of protein (either pork or chicken), three or four types of mushrooms, green onions, Chinese cabbage, several varieties of tofu, some kind of noodle, and bean sprouts. We are also both fond of seri, a Japanese leaf vegetable that has a slightly bitter taste. Since there are usually only two of us eating at my house we like to make a lot of nabe so that we can have rice porridge for breakfast the next morning.

The casual nature of nabe makes it a great choice for party food, and there’s no better way to warm up than to gather a group of friends together for nabe and either beer or sake. Nabe have helped me live through many a Japanese winter, and I will be sharing several nabe recipes throughout this season. Until then, here are some recipes from other blogs and websites.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2010 12:44 pm

    Hope everything’s going well on the job front!

    Mmm. Wish I had some nabe right now! So good. Would be perfect on a chilly rainy evening like tonight.

    • December 6, 2010 6:11 pm

      Thanks! It’s going really well actually (knock on wood) – I’m already at a good level of busyness, which is somehow a lot more pleasant when I can work on my own time without anyone breathing down my neck…

      I truly think nabe must appeal to anyone who lives in a climate with chilly weather. It’s so sad there’s not a similar American cuisine (but luckily nabe is really easy to make!)

  2. December 16, 2010 1:19 pm

    Nabe sounds SO good right now! I’m having visions of broth soaked aburaage dancing through my head!

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