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Hot pots, what the Japanese call nabe (nah-beh), are a fundamental style of Japanese home cooking, which means, by definition, they’re simple, fast, and easy to prepare. Many of us, though, have almost no point of reference for Japanese food beyond the local sushi bar, so cooking this cuisine can sometimes seem exotic and intimidating. But here’s a secret: with a little know-how, Japanese food is a cinch to make, especially these comforting dishes. In the pages that follow, we’ll walk you though everything you need to know, from understanding essential ingredients and seasonings to choosing the right cookware to learning basic techniques. So very soon, whipping up a gorgeous hot pot will become as second nature as roasting a chicken.
What is a Japanese Hot Pot?
Japanese hot pots are a delicious medley of foods poached in broth inside a single cooking vessel, a tempting combination of vegetables, tofu, noodles, seafood, poultry, or meat. They’re usually enjoyed in the colder months, but many of these dishes are also eaten year round. They evolved in Japan as wholesome, economical, and complete one-pot meals, especially with rice or noodles added at the finish as is customary. Compared to Western foods, they’re heartier than soup but not as dense as stew.
Think of hot pots as a mingling of tasty layers: broth, foundation ingredients (basic foods found in every dish), main ingredients, natural flavorings like soy sauce and miso, and accents and garnishes like wasabi. Each of these enhances the others and together they create the dish. And because the ingredients and flavorings cook in broth, they impart their essence to the liquid as well as to the other foods in the pot. So everything is nuancing everything else all the time--which is why these dishes produce such delightfully vibrant tastes even though they’re so easy to make.
Let’s take a peek at each of the layers to understand them better.
Broth (and Dashi)
Japanese hot pots come in three basic styles, based on the broth--water and kombu, flavored stock, or a thick broth. In the first, water simmers with kombu, a remarkable kelp (see “The Power of Kombu,” page 6). Foods poached in this liquid are then dipped into a sauce to add taste. In the second, stock is combined with flavorings like soy sauce or miso (a fermented paste) to create a complex broth that infuses the foods simmering in it. No need to dip. Finally, there’s a thick broth closer to a sauce than a stock, substantial enough to stand up to boldly flavored foods like beef, venison, or oysters.
Japanese-style chicken stock (page 32), mushroom stock, or even sake can form the basis of a hot pot broth, but dashi is the most common. For good reason. The Japanese word for “stock,” dashi is both a generic term and one synonymous with the classic stock made from kombu and dried, shaved bonito (a variety of tuna). This is the dashi we refer to throughout the book.
Kombu and bonito are both naturally preserved ingredients, and both remarkable. Giant kelp that can grow several yards long, kombu is dried into ribbons the thickness of cardboard. Bonito undergoes a more extensive transformation, the fish first filleted and boiled, then smoked, covered in mold, and sun-dried to the hardness of oak, a technique dating from the 1600s. All this culinary alchemy concentrates the ample umami naturally found in both ingredients (see “The Umm in Umami,” opposite page). And when they combine in dashi--incredibly--their flavor compounds synergize and pack an even greater palate-pleasing wallop.
Making dashi is straightforward: You soak and heat the kombu in water to extract its essence, remove it, then steep the bonito flakes in the liquid, like tea (see Dashi, page 30). Compared to a traditional Western stock, where bones, roots, and herbs are slow-simmered to tease out their essence, dashi is faster to prepare. And with just two ingredients, it’s also lighter, so its deep savory kick magnifies other foods rather than masks them, making dashi an incredibly versatile ingredient.
Every Japanese hot pot is cooked with a group of wholesome foods that bestow flavor, nutrition, and heft to the dish. These are the foundation ingredients, a humble, economical, and healthy assortment of roots, greens, onion, mushrooms, and tofu. Combine them with broth, natural flavor, and the main ingredients and you’ve got a deeply satisfying meal-in-a-pot. You may not be familiar with every food we describe here, but they’re all age-old Japanese staples that contribute their own singular flavors and textures. (Texture is about how food feels inside your mouth, a sensation as pleasing as taste to the Japanese palate.) Also, the vegetables here are in peak season in Japan during the colder months, making them the traditional foods for this cooking. All hot pot ingredients are readily available at Japanese and Asian markets (see Resources, page 139).
Napa cabbage: A type of Chinese cabbage (and sometimes called that), it’s the traditional workhorse of hot pot cooking, appearing in most recipes in the book. (In most cases we specify a particular way to slice these leaves. See “How to Slice Napa Cabbage,” page 52.) This nutritious Japanese staple has a delicate taste, transforming as it cooks from crispy and green to tender and sweet. While it simmers, too, its porous leaves work like a sponge to absorb broth and pull in lots of flavor. Look for crisp, fresh leaves that are yellow-green at the tips, turning white at the stem. Note that for a few hot pots, instead of napa, we use ordinary round green cabbage, also long cultivated in Japan. Green cabbage has a stronger, more pronounced flavor than napa cabbage, and isn’t as tender, but it works better for certain dishes. Use the green leaves only; discard the hard white core.
Daikon: A radish that looks like a giant white carrot, daikon can grow over a foot long and as thick as a baseball bat. Look for a firm root; when squeezed, it should feel like a taut balloon. In hot pots, daikon is eaten either cooked or grated raw. When poached, it develops a delicate sweetness and readily absorbs the flavors from a dish. Grated raw it adds a refreshing counterpoint, especially when matched with rich foods like oily fish. (Raw daikon also contains natural digestive enzymes that help assimilate said rich foods when eaten together.) When you peel a daikon, make sure to remove all of its thick, white skin to fully expose the glossy flesh. The middle of the root holds the sweetest flavor and is the best part for cooking. The tip, on the other hand, is spicy and fibrous; use it for grating. Daikon is usually precooked to soften it before it is added to a hot pot.
Negi: This remarkable onion has a sharp, acidic taste when raw that turns sweet and tender when simmered. We take advantage of both qualities in the recipes, pairing the bite of lightly poached negi with rich ingredients like pork belly to cut their fattiness, or cooking it all the way to add delectable sweetness to a broth. Negi also mellows the fishiness of seafood, adding a sappari (cleansing) quality to the palate, much like wasabi does for sushi. There are a number of varieties of negi, but we use Tokyo negi (also called naga negi), which is readily available here. Having long white cylinders that sprout green leaves, these onions grow up to 3/4 inch thick and 2 feet long. Unless we indicate otherwise, use the entire negi, including the green parts, but trim off any dry leaves. This onion is sometimes called “Japanese leek” (although not a leek) or “welsh onion” (no connection to Wales), but we’re sticking to negi, like in Japan. Finally, if you can’t find them, substitute two large scallions per negi in the recipes.
Japanese mushrooms: Autumn in Japan heralds the arrival of crisp hot pot weather--and the start of the country’s celebrated wild mushroom picking season. Japanese mushrooms lavish incomparable earthy, woody flavors and fragrance to hot pots, and add a seductive visual touch to these dishes. We use a quartet of cultivated varieties that are readily available at Japanese and Asian markets.
If you have trouble finding any of these mushrooms, substitute white button, brown crimini, or another cultivated variety of your choosing (but not portobellos, whose flavor can overwhelm a broth). Wild edible mushrooms like trumpets and chanterelles are fantastic, too. Almost any mushroom will add fragrance and flavor to a hot pot, so feel free to give different varieties a try. To clean mushrooms, wipe off any dust and dirt with a damp paper towel or cloth. You can store them in the refrigerator for two to three days; just wrap in a paper towel and place inside a sealed container before sticking them in the fridge.
Shiitake are the best known Japanese mushrooms, with the common variety of this bold fungi found in gourmet markets across the country. There’s also another type of shiitake often sold at Japanese markets called donko, with thicker caps that curl under. If you can find donko, use them because they have more potent flavor. (But regular shiitake are terrific, too.) Cut off the tough stems and discard before cooking, and halve any large caps to make them bite-size. Shiitake are also sold dried, which we reconstitute in water to make a stock for some recipes. Soak these whole, stems and all.
Shimeji are tender, straw-colored mushrooms that grow in clusters and have small caps that are 1/4 to 1/2 inch across. These mushrooms add more flavor than fragrance, infusing dishes with an appealing earthiness. They’re typically sold in 100-gram packages (about 31/2 ounces).
Enoki are delicate white mushrooms that grow in a dense clump, with tiny white caps sitting atop long, thin stalks. They add a subtle but distinctive flavor and fragrance to hot pots. They’re typically sold in 200-gram packages (about 7 ounces).
Oyster is our mushroom substitute for maitake, a delicious fungi but difficult to find here, while oyster mushrooms are native to America. (If you come across maitake, you can use them instead of oyster mushrooms in the recipes.) White oyster mushrooms grow in large clusters and have irregular-shaped caps. While not as distinctively fungusy as maitake, they add their own appealing flavor and fragrance. Cut their large caps into more manageable pieces.
Japanese greens: Greens add nutrition, flavor, and lovely color to hot pots. We use a trio of leaves in our dishes. The first, spinach, is as popular in Japan as it is here. The other two, mizuna and shungiku, are less familiar to American cooks. If you can’t find one or the other, you can substitute watercress (which will add its own flavor to a hot pot) or spinach for either. No matter what the leaves, make sure to wash them well to remove any sand and dirt, and always add them as the last step so they quickly blanch but don’t overcook.
Mizuna, called “pot herb mustard” in English, has long stems and jagged leaves that resemble dandelions. It has a mild taste with a hint of natural acidity. The stems, which you also cook, have a wonderful texture.
Shungiku are the fragrant leaves of a kind of chrysanthemum. This green has a strong, slightly bitter flavor that’s distinct in the same way that the flavor of arugula is distinct (although the two are not alike). It’s a classic hot pot ingredient that complements bold foods like meat.
Burdock root: This tapered, brown-colored root resembles the business end of a whip, about 3/4 inch at its thickest, and up to 3 feet long. Burdock imparts a sweet, earthy flavor to a broth. It’s a mainstay of the rustic hot pots of Japan’s far northern snow country and pairs beautifully with meat as well as other roots. Burdock has a hard, woody flesh that usually must be precooked (see “How to Slice and Poach Burdock Root,” page 49). Never peel it, as most of its flavor is found close to its skin. Instead, either lightly scrape off the brown dirt on its surface with the back of a knife or, better, lightly scour it with an all-purpose scrubbing pad under running water to reveal its white flesh (a gentler touch than a knife). Rinse off any excess dirt. Also, if you’re not cooking with it immediately, soak burdock in water treated with vinegar as soon as you clean it; otherwise it will oxidize and discolor. Use a teaspoon of distilled white or rice vinegar per cup of water.
Taro: This root, like burdock, is usually found in more rustic hot pots. Japanese taro is about the size of an egg, and has hairy brown skin, which you peel off. Its cream-colored flesh is sweet, earthy, and a touch starchy, with a slightly sticky consistency. Look for firm roots that have unblemished skin.
Tofu: Soybean curd is loaded with protein, and rich in calcium, iron, and vitamins. For our recipes, use Japanese-style or Korean-style tofu, if possible. Both are produced here, are available at Asian markets, and have a more sublime soybean flavor than supermarket varieties do. Tofu comes in many styles, but we use the following four kinds for hot pots.
Firm tofu (momen) can stand up to longer simmering, and is the one we use most often for hot pots.
Silken tofu (kinugoshi) has a delightful, fresh flavor but a very delicate texture, so handle gingerly.
Broiled tofu (yakidofu) is firm tofu that, yes, has been broiled, which reduces moisture, concentrates flavor, and gives the bean curd its distinctive toasty surface, a nice aesthetic highlight. If you can’t find broiled tofu, substitute the firm variety, but don’t broil it yourself.
Abura age (abu-rah ah-geh) is tofu that has been thinly sliced and deep fried. There are a number of abura age varieties; for our recipes, use the one shaped like a rectangle about 3 by 6 inches in size and 1/4 inch thick. They usually come several to a pack and can be stored frozen for months. Since it’s deep fried, we first “wash” this tofu in boiling water to remove any excess oil.
By the way, you’ll notice in the recipes that we usually call for big blocks of tofu (like that glorious bean curd in the cover photograph). Why the hefty hunks? More a Japanese custom than anything else. The outsized pieces look impressive in the pot--and are fun to break apart with chopsticks.
Hot pot noodles: In hot pots, noodles are traditionally eaten two ways--either cooked in the dish from the beginning or added as the shime (finish), at the end of the meal. The more familiar Japanese noodles, udon (wheat) and soba (buckwheat), are typically eaten as shime, which we’ll get to later in this chapter. For cooking, Japanese use a number of less familiar noodles that serve to absorb flavor, add texture, and fill the belly from the get-go. This is economical eating, after all.
Harusame are thin, transparent noodles made from mung bean, potato, or sweet potato starch. They have to be soaked first, and depending on the noodle--they can be up to a foot long--cut in half or thirds before cooking. Harusame absorb the flavors of other ingredients and turn the color of the broth as they cook.
Itokonnyaku and shirataki are both squiggly, translucent noodles made from konnyaku, a gelatin produced from a type of root. Itokonnyaku are usually brownish-colored, about the thickness of spaghetti. Shirataki noodles are white-colored and thinner. These noodles don’t absorb as much flavor as harusame; instead, they’re enjoyed more for their pleasing chewy texture.
From the Trade Paperback edition.