It’s the autumn of 2013, and dusk falls over the historic Nagatani-en pottery works in the hills above the city of Iga, Mie Prefecture. As the employees finish their shifts and head home, the squat buildings fall quiet and dark — all except the 200-year-old residence at the heart of this artisan complex, where a special meal is about to begin.
Yuji Nagatani, the charismatic seventh-generation company head, is there alongside his wife and children. They have gathered in the same atmospheric dining room their ancestor’s once ate in, sitting on thin zabuton cushions around a long table. With its tatami mats and sliding doors covered in bold cursive calligraphy, the setting is stately — as befits the arrival of visitors from afar.
But instead of welcoming their guests with a full-scale multicourse kaiseki dinner of traditional Japanese cuisine they have prepared a much more relaxed meal: a party based around donabe, the striking hand-made ceramic hot pots that are the core of Nagatani-en’s business.
There is no better way to break down the barriers of etiquette and formality than to spend an evening sitting around a table and eating from a communal casserole. Watching your food cook in front of you, with the aromas perfuming the room, and then having it served direct from the pot to your bowl — or better yet, helping yourself — is always a recipe for enjoyment and camaraderie.
Among the ingredients the Nagatani family like to prepare is Iga’s specialty: inoshishi (wild boar). Slices of the meat — vivid red flesh in creamy white fat — are arranged on a wide platter, ready to be briefly dunked into the broth that is coming to a boil in a handsome clay pot in the center of the table, along with Chinese cabbage, enoki mushrooms, chrysanthemum greens and other vegetables.
And rice is also cooking. Nagatani-en’s high profile today is in large part due to its signature Kamado-san vessel, a donabe that has been designed specifically for preparing the staple grain. Introduced some 15 years ago, its double-lid structure produces cooked rice far superior to anything that ever came out of an electric rice cooker.
What gives Iga-yaki (ceramics from Iga) their edge, especially when it comes to donabe, is the clay they are made from. Dug from a stratum that once formed the ancient bed of Lake Biwa, it contains microorganisms that break down during the high-temperature firing process in the kiln. Minute air bubbles are formed in the walls of the pot, which help to retain heat while cooking, improving the flavor and texture of the ingredients inside.
The guests that evening were from California: cooking teacher and longtime donabe enthusiast Naoko Takei Moore; chef Kyle Connaughton, who lived and worked several years at the Michel Bras restaurant in Hokkaido; and ace food photographer Eric Wolfinger. They came to meet the family, to record the production processes and to deepen their understanding of donabe cooking.
But their primary goal was to gather material for their collective project: the first major book in English on donabe cooking. Their aim was to collect the traditional hot-pot recipes developed over the centuries around Japan and to take this style of cooking into the international arena, with new recipes tailored to American and international tastes.
Nagatani-en has proved to be the perfect fit for their book. It has the history and tradition, as evidenced by the centuries-old climbing kiln on the adjacent hillside (though it was fired for the last time in the 1970s). But it is also anchored in the present and has developed a range of contemporary products.
They produce a line of hot pots with shallow bases and conical lids, inspired by the tajine casseroles of Morocco. The company has also created a donabe specifically intended for smoking foods. When placed over a high heat, wood chips inside start to smolder. Salmon, duck, sausages, tofu and just about everything is enhanced by the magic touch of the smoke.
Two years on from that epic dinner, the book is finished. Titled “Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking,” it features recipes by Moore and Connaughton, along with contributions from their chef friends in California, such as David Kinch, whose Los Gatos restaurant Manresa recently won a coveted third Michelin star. Thanks to their combined efforts, donabe cooking — like so many other aspects of Japanese cuisine — is finally ready to go international.
Regional nabe (hot pot) recipes
Cooking with donabe (ceramic clay pots) has been part of Japanese cuisine for centuries, and each region has developed its own signature recipes featuring local specialty ingredients. In coastal areas, fish or other seafood — whether crab, fugu blowfish or salmon — are likely to be used. Other parts of the country use chicken, beef or simply tofu. Here are some of the very best traditional varieties.
Hokkaido is renowned for its seafood, and this is reflected in its casserole culture. Look no further than the classic fishermen’s hot pot known as ishikari-nabe. Salmon is the key ingredient here, sliced into hefty wedges together with seasonal vegetables and — because the fisher folk hate to waste any part of their catch — with a whole salmon head placed in the center.
In Akita Prefecture the classic winter dish is kiritanpo, a hearty nabe filled with chopped burdock, negi (Welsh onion), mushrooms, yams and chicken meat — the local variety, Hinai-jidori, is one of the most flavorful in Japan — along with the cylindrical dumplings of pounded rice the dish is named after.
The archetypal Kyoto nabe is yudofu. Spare and austere, like the temple tradition from which it sprang, this is the most refined form of the genre. In a light broth usually derived from konbu kelp alone, cubes of freshly made tofu are slowly heated and then eaten with a simple soy sauce dip.
At the other extreme is the rich beef-based casserole known as gyunabe, which originated in Yokohama. This dates back to the city’s earliest days as a treaty port in the mid-19th century. Usually prepared in a flat-bottomed cast-iron pan, the beef is quickly cooked along with negi, shiitake mushrooms and edible chrysanthemum greens in a sweetened soy-based broth.