Raw ingredients and a boil-it-yourself approach are the saving graces of the otherwise meat-oriented staples of nabe (hot pot). Hinabe is a Chinese-style version (sort-of — the history is complicated) that can be found all over Japan, and its multiple broths are the perfect steamy concoction for a chilly fall evening.
Hinabe is a dip-as-you go soup dish best enjoyed with company. Unlike other hot pot styles that feature one shared dish in the center of the table with everything mixed together, a hinabe pot is often divided into two or three partitions with different soup bases in each. Being the odd vegetarian among my friends, this proves beneficial. We agree that one section will be for vegetables only, and in the other parts they are free to mix in their meat choices.
There is usually one side of the pot reserved for a very spicy mix, one for a milder, milkier soup and, depending on the restaurant, a third partition for yet another flavor. Mix the soups in your own bowl to your liking as you eat the freshly boiled morsels therein.
The broths are flavored with Chinese kanpo herbs. Depending on the place, some of the broths may contain collagen or other animal derivatives, so ask before eating to make sure.
Xiao Wei Yang (2-7-3 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 03-5911-2289; several other locations in Tokyo also listed at www.syabusyabu.net) offers several different soup options. The white pai-tan and the red ma-ra hontan soups contain added collagen; the clear vegetable soup, san-chin-tan, does not.
Xiao Wei Yang has a two-hour all-you-can-eat option starting at ¥2,980 per person, but for a hungry vegetarian it might be best to order tanpin (a la carte) to fully enjoy all the restaurant has to offer. I usually order extras of toppogi (Korean rice cakes), kikurage (wood ear mushrooms) and my favorite, yamabushitake, a delicate, fluffy white mushroom. The vegetable platter comes with plenty of bean sprouts, clear noodles, tofu, daikon radish and an assortment of mushrooms.
A typical hinabe course finishes with ramen noodles added right to the pot, if you manage to save room after everything else.
Hyaku Raku Mon Shuka in Shimokitazawa (2-13-2 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3418-3993; www.korin-zenko.co.jp/yakuzen; also another branch in Yoga, Setagaya-ku) is another option for hinabe, though the soups do contain some collagen. The staff are happy to explain each of the 30 different herbs included in the two broths — one spicy, one mild — as the restaurant’s particular hinabe recipe is based on Chinese medicinal healing, detox and wellbeing.
Hinabe can quickly become a go-to course for autumn chills or winter blues, a lively outing with friends or simply a savory delight to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace at any time of year.
Ananda Jacobs is a composer, recording artist and actress in Tokyo, and has been ovo-lacto vegetarian for over 20 years. She is currently producing music for her band Jacobs. www.anandajacobs.com