Nabe cooking: shabu shabu, sukiyaki, chanko nabe

by Caroline Klein

In Japanese, nabe (pronounced "nah-beh") simply means pot. nabe ryori (pot cooking) has become a generic term for meals cooked in a pot - vegetables, meat and noodles or rice cooked at the table in a communal pot.

The pot is filled with a broth or flavouring and then the ingredients are gradually added to cook. Everyone helps themselves from the pot in the middle of them. Depending on the dish, iron or clay cooking pots may be used, but when one eats nabe at home, it tends to be from a clay pot. These dishes are definitely a winter warmer and are known to originate from rural areas sometime around the 9th century. It is farmhouse fare, descended from the large pot that was kept warm over the irori (hearth).

Sukiyaki is perhaps the best known nabe dish (thanks to the pop song of the same name!) but there is a variety of regional specialties.nabe from Hokkaido uses salmon and vegetables in a miso broth, while horsemeat features in Nagano and wild boar appears in Tanba and Yamashiro (near Kyoto). Modern varieties have also taken on imports such as Korean kimchi (pickled cabbage) and there is now a great choice of pre-prepared flavourings available.

Kumano Kodo nabe cuisine.
Nabe Ingredients.

In contrast to the refined image of Japanese food, such as sushi, overseas, nabe, although still quite a healthy food, is very filling and warming and is a popular way to spend winter evenings among friends. It's still rare to be invited to a Japanese home for a meal (often because they are so small) but nabe seems to be the exception to the rule, where young people meet up to snuggle under a kotatsu (heated table) and share the communal dish. In general, nabe is eaten straight out of the pot, dipping the tofu and vegetables into a saucer of ponzu ( ポン酢 ) and served with rice.

Sukiyaki すき焼き

Sukiyaki consists of meat or tofu, alongside vegetables and other ingredients, slowly cooked or simmered in a shallow iron pot in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar and mirin. Before eating, one can dip the food in a bowl of beaten egg, but this is not compulsory for the nervous of disposition!

Thinly sliced beef is usually used for sukiyaki; although in the past, in certain parts of the country (notably Hokkaido and Niigata) pork was also popular. Ingredients cooked with the beef are tofu, small spring onions, mushrooms, and leafy vegetables like Chinese cabbage and konnyaku (jelly-like) clear noodles.

Udon or soba (buckwheat) noodles or rice are sometimes added at the end to soak up the broth.

Like other nabe dishes, each Japanese region has a preferred way of cooking sukiyaki. The key difference is between Kansai in the west and Kanto in the east of Japan . In the Kanto (Tokyo) region, the ingredients are stewed in a prepared mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sake and mirin, whereas in Kansai, the meat is first grilled in the pan greased with fat. After other ingredients are put over these, the liquid is poured into the pan.

Japanese nabe.

Shabu shabu しゃぶしゃぶ

Shabu shabu is traditionally made with thinly sliced beef, though modern variants sometimes use pork, crab, chicken, duck, or lobster. It is also possible these days to have mixed dishes of beef and pork. Like Sukiyaki, Shabu shabu usually includes tofu and vegetables, including Chinese cabbage, chrysanthemum leaves, seaweed, onions, and mushrooms.

The dish is prepared in a pot of boiling water or dashi (broth) made with kombu (kelp). The very thinly sliced meat is then cooked by each person by submerging it and swishing it back and forth several times. The swishing sound is where the dish gets its name - Shabu shabu roughly translates as "swish-swish". Cooked meat and vegetables are usually dipped in ponzu or goma (sesame seed) sauce before eating with a bowl of rice.

When all the meat and vegetables have been eaten, rice (or sometimes noodles) is added into the remaining broth in the pot and the resulting soup is eaten as a finale.

Nabe dishes are not just eaten at home and there are numerous restaurants and chains throughout Japan . Menus may slightly alarm unwitting foreigners as they will usually be plastered with photos of sliced raw meat. This is because (unless you have gone for the "all you can eat variety") you will need to choose the quantity and quality of your meat. This does make ordering fairly straight forward however as at least you can just point at the pictures without needing a knowledge of Japanese! (Film buffs may remember the scene from Lost in Translation but should be reassured that nabe food is in general a cheerful and delicious experience - highly recommended!)

Ibuki (3-23-6 Shinjuku)

Shabu shabu and suki yaki in traditional Japanese surroundings with English menu - the lady in charge is very friendly and happy to help first timers. Listed in the Lonely Planet Japan Guide.

Steaming nabe pot.

Chanko nabe ちゃんこ鍋

Chanko nabe comes from the word chanko, which was originally a generic term for any dishes cooked for sumo wrestlers. The one cooked in a nabe has become the best known and in recent years has become hugely popular. It is similar to the various other forms of Japanese nabe cooking but is made with careful consideration given to its nutritional value, and is eaten in large quantities as the primary source of energy for sumo wrestlers. Normal citizens can eat smaller quantities but it is still advisable to be quite hungry before a meal!

The dashi (stock) in which the food is cooked varies from sumo stable to stable, but is usually flavoured with soy sauce, miso, and/or sake - each sumo stable has a characteristic style with different ingredients and flavour.

When some wrestlers retire, they use this knowledge to become a chef and open up their own restaurant. These are often filled with sumo memorabilia and are a magnet for sumo fans. Many are in the area around Ryogoku, no doubt because of its proximity to the sumo stadium there. These restaurants run by retired sumo wrestlers also often serve the original recipe from the stable they formerly belonged to.

Kuroshio (黒潮) is named for its owner Koto Kuroshio (his former sumo name) and is located in Kagurazaka. Friendly owner and delicious, good value food.

Tel: 03 3267 1816

Other Japan articles by Caroline Klein

Nihon minka-en
Otabi Festival

Books on Japanese Food

Goods From Japan to your home or business.