Every year as the cold deepens at the beginning of winter, the Japanese crave for that particular cookery which makes them warm and cozy around the table. It is called by the name of its cooking utensil holding the very food in it. 'nabe' or 'the pot' is the most popular food enthusiastically eaten by all the people throughout the nation in winter. We say 'nabe wo suru.''we do nabe'. We never say 'eat ' because of its technical inability of eating the pot.
Nabe is the simplest cooking just done in a single pot in which a large variety of food is allowed to join as its members. The traditional participants are winter vegetables such as negi (leek), hakusai (Chinese cabbage), daikon (white radish), or shungiku (edible chrysanthemum leaves). White-meat fish is often used while beef, pork, and chicken are also regular members. Moreover you can add other supporting food such as mushrooms, tofu, and shirataki (thin noodle- like food made from certain potato starch). There are no particular rules to make nabe but just to cook the ingredients together in the same pot filled with seasoned soup.
Typical Sukiyaki cooked at home
The soup plays quite an important role in this bubbling food community. The character of nabe considerably depends on its soup. The simplest one is hot water with a slight taste of salt. Clear soup called 'dashi' made from bonito flakes and a certain sort of seaweed is also widely used. Miso and soy sauce types are two other popular variations. Apart from soup, you could put various kinds of food into this pot while all the foods are simmering out their essence of taste into great harmony temporarily created in this iron or stone walled utopia.
What is most exciting about nabe cuisine comes on its last stage. The final addition of rice or noodles sucks up all the soup and the pot gets clear of food, empty, completely consumed by the real human participants comfortably stroking their bellies around the table.
What is the point of my lengthy explanation of nabe cuisine? I always see some hidden wisdom which our ancestors had practiced in this traditional way of eating food. This is very economical cooking on the use of its food and utensils. All you need is a pot, a small ladle, chopsticks and bowls. You can use the ordinary every day food in the fridge for its ingredients. Besides they can be added in the pot whenever consumed by the nabe holders, therefore the feast could be continued as long as the food is supplied. This is even more convenient when the number of the participants cannot be predicted beforehand. Last of all, the most attractive thing to have nabe is that it encourages friendship and cooperation among the participants. We often say 'nabe wo kakomu','to surround nabe'. The mouth of the pot is usually round. We sit around watching over a circle. Glances of acknowledgement, satisfied nodding, warnings, and funny remarks are exchanged across the circle among the members.
Cooking Utensils for nabe
Two types of nabe made of
stainless steel (left)
and earthenware (right)
'May I take my turn? ' 'Of course, you first.' or on the contrary 'No, it's mine! My favorite! I've been aiming to get it.' etc. 'Let's get the meat clear. It's been cooked too long. Put fresh slices into it.' 'Oh! Some shirataki is hidden under the meat.' 'Don't intrude this corner. I want to cook it long.' ' Will you check the taste of soup? It's getting thick.' ' Shall we put some hot water before adding rice to finish?
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With such encouragement, conflict, and advice, the members of the party try to build up happiness and unity among various kinds of food in the pot. The world of the pot really resembles our human society. All the ingredients are ourselves. We strive to simmer out our character into the society trying to do a good job. We are all responsible for what is going on in this small round world. The circle attracts 'en', special bondage between people, the wheel of our fate. This circle is not broken by those who come late to join. If you have a great capacity to accept variety of things in the world, your world is more spreading. Well then, how does 'Unity' meet 'Variety'?
Akane Segawa:She teaches English at Bunka Gakuin.