Monday, March 9, 2009

Japanese Hot Pot aka Nabe

That's pronounced "nub-eh" not "nayb". Nabe can be a dish or a dish. What I mean is, it can be a meal and it can also refer to the ceramic pot you cook it in.

I grew up on this comfort food and anytime I was away from home for long periods of time, it was one of the foods I'd really miss. There are as many variations on this dish as there are for "meatloaf" or "tuna casserole" so other people will do something completely different than what I do. And that's OK! There's no right or wrong way. As long as it tastes good and gets the family or friends around the table, the recipe doesn't even matter. It does consist of a few parts though: protein, vegetables, and starch/carbs.

For protein, my mom would usually use chicken thighs or wings to make a stock(with the skin and bone on for more flavour). Then she'd usually get a few variations of Chinese greens like bok choy, choy sum, napa and cabbage. Most leafy or stalky greens will work.  I always slice some carrots on an angle for colour and flavour. I also like to add enoki mushrooms (the long skinny white thingys in the pic below), tofu, and konnyaku thread bunches (and sometime udon, if we have guests). You can also add leeks and other greens you'd normally put in a soup.

To start off, I put about 2 -3 sheets of kombu (dried sea kelp) in a large stockpot of water. I let this sit on a low-med heat while I chop the vegetables into bite-sized pieces. The kombu is very concentrated with flavour and you'll see the water turn a golden tinge after it's been sitting in there for a while.

Something I did recently is make pork meatballs using about 1/2 - 1 pound of lean ground pork, 1-2 chopped garlic clove (depending on how garlicky you like it), 1 tbsp of finely chopped ginger and salt and pepper. You can leave the bowl of raw ground meat at the table and cook as you go (using 2 large spoons to form balls, dropping them into the pot as you go), but if the sight of raw meat makes you sick, you can boil these meatballs in the kombu broth ahead of time so that they're all ready to go and the broth is nicely flavoured. Your choice.  If you can find sukiyaki style beef or pork (sliced thin), that cooks very quickly and is easy, too.

I like to use the nabe (the pot) for aesthetic purposes but if you don't have one, you can use a stock/soup pot. Just be sure you can easily reach into it to grab stuff out. It would be best to use one that's not too deep.

We've got it on a single burner (behind the sauces) and bring it to a boil. Then put in your meat (unless you are using pieces with skin and bones attached. Those will take longer so you'll need to cook them in the stock before you start serving), vegetables, tofu, noodles, etc and wait until the meat is cooked thoroughly. Add whatever condiments to your bowl (we usually go for kimchee base [centre] and roasted sesame paste[left]) and when the meat and veggies are ready, dig into the big pot and grab what you like (you can designate a pair of "pot only" chopsticks for germophobes) and ladle in some of the soup, too. Make sure the sauces are well mixed in and enjoy! Usually someone is on refill duty (in our home, that's me) and will stock up the pot so the next batch can cook while everyone's eating.

I grew up finishing the meal off with noodles (like cooked vermicelli and udon) but some like to use cooked, cooled rice (like leftover rice). By the end of the meal, the soup is very nicely flavoured with meat and veggie essences and all this seeps into the starch and makes for a delicious filler-of-the-cracks in your tummy. If you're using rice, some people like to crack an egg into the pot and let that cook in the broth. The leftover soup-egg-veggie bits makes for a really good breakfast the next morning!

There are variation on the nabe stock, too. People also use soymilk in the stock for a creamier broth, and I've even heard that curry nabe is somewhat of a rage in Japan. There isn't really a right or wrong way. The most important thing is that it tastes good to you!

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