Its a little warmer this week than last, but winter is definitely stalking Japan.  As November draws to a close and bonenkai (there will be many end of year parties) season starts up another Japanese tradition will begin popping up through houses across Japan.  Nabe is a Japanese winter tradition with as many variations as there are places in Japan.  Nabe is essentially a hot pot, a way to keep away the cold and bring friends together. Here’s my take:

What you need

Broth:  The great thing about nabe is that you can put just about anything in it.  Different localities will have their own specialties of course.  If you live in Japan you can probably find nabe dashi (seasoning) bags ready to go.  All you have to do is cut them open and pour them in.  These come in a variety of flavors such as kimuchi, soy sauce, and others.  If you’re on your own try a mix of water, soy sauce, and dashi (dry packets of fish-based seasoning).  Consomme or other stocks will make a decent broth as well.

Vegetables:  Prepare your favorite vegetables.  Since you’ll be putting them in boiling water root vegetables work well (though you may want to pre-cook them).  Various leafy vegetables and mushrooms are also popular.  Be sure to keep things big so that they don’t get lost in the hot pot.  Generally you’ll use chopsticks to fish them out so you want them easy to grab.

Meat: You’ll want thinly sliced meat, tofu, or meatballs to add flavor and protein.  You want them thin to ensure they’ll cook in time with the vegetables.  Its better to avoid cuts that will produce a lot of jou since that can change the flavor profile of your base.  You can use different types of meat, but you’ll find some work better in different seasonings.  Tofu is nice for nabe since it goes with just about everything.

NabeEquipment:  Nabe means pot in Japanese.  So you’ll need a nabe.  They come in many forms, you could get away with a regular pot.  Traditionally, and at most parties however, people will use a stone or ceramic pot specifically for this type of cooking.  Generally it will have a thick base to stand up to the heat of a portable burner and a cover to keep the heat in after everything is in.  You may also want a portable burner.  Usually everyone sits around a table and eats together, which is much easier than standing around your range.  Electric variations are also available where the nabe and heating element are combined.

Other:  Other stuff works well in nabe too.  Several kinds of noodles go well.  You can also even throw in some gyoza, just be sure to take it out before it falls apart.

How to Nabe

1.  Set up your nabe: Prep your pot and burner, be it electric or traditional.  Make sure you have enough gas if you’re going portable.  You’ll also need small bowls and chopsticks for everyone.

2. Prep your food: Cut your vegetables and lay them out on a tray for easy access while nabe-ing.  You can do the same with your meat.  You’ll also want to get a ladle ready.  If you’re going to serve rice with the meal get that ready too, though you probably wont need much since everyone will be focused on the nabe-ness.

If you’re serving daikon or carrots remember to cut them big.  Here you might want to pre-boil them in some seasoned water.  Make sure you don’t over cook them, just get them ready for a nice soak in some nabe broth so they’re ready to eat when your other items are good to go.  Save the water to help flavor the nabe, or use it to refill it if it gets too low.

3.  Select a chief nabe-er.  One person should be in charge of refilling the nabe so that everyone else can focus on the important stuff… eating.  They can also make sure stuff is cooked before people start eating.

4.  Start!  After your nabe is hot, put a selection of vegetables and meat in to the nabe, then cover it to let them cook.  While this is happening distract your guests from the awesome smell with some jokes, or by burning your hand on the nabe cover (if you’re not into comedy you may want to prep a pot holder).  Don’t mix everything together.  Keep the vegetables and meats in their own groupings so people can take what they want.

5.  Open and enjoy.  Add more food as you need, keeping track of what is raw and what is ready.  If one person is in charge its easy to for them to let others know what’s ready.  You can either let people serve themselves or serve them from the bowl.

6. Enjoy some more… its nabe it just keeps going.

Update:  If you have a clay (nabe) pot, it is meant to be used on an open flame.  Only certain pots should be used on electric ranges.  They will be marked as safe on their packaging.  You can make nabe in just about any pot, so it doesn’t much matter if you use a ‘traditional’ one, though they’re useful in that they are low and wide, making it easier for everyone to share from.  One option is to cook in a pot marked safe for electric ranges, and then serve in a clay nabe.  Another is purchasing a portable range which are very common in Japan.

If you enjoy Nabe, you might also like Shabu Shabu!