What comes to mind when you think of convivial home-cooked family meals? In Japan, the answer is usually nabe, or hot-pot cooking.

A large communal pot is placed in the center of the dinner table on a portable burner, bubbling with a flavorful broth, in which meat or fish, vegetables, mushrooms and other ingredients are cooked and taken out by each diner when they’re ready to eat. Nabe meals warm the heart and soul as well as the body, and are a favorite during the fall and winter.

The basics of nabe have remained quite constant since the 19th century. Communal hot pots have probably been around ever since pots were invented, but nabe cooking as we know it today only became widely popular in Japan in the later Edo Period, when small portable burners called hibachi (which literally means “fire pot”) became safe enough to use in small wooden dwellings and eating establishments.

A donabe (earthenware pot) is the most popular type of pot, since it transmits heat slowly, allowing the food to cook through well as it simmers. Cast-iron pots are also used depending on the nabe type, and in recent years stainless steel and enamel pots have become popular, especially with the introduction of induction-heat tabletop cookers. The most popular type of tabletop cooker is still one that uses butane gas — the warm glow of the flame may be a stand-in for the hibachi of olden days.

A nabe always contains a flavorful protein, plenty of seasonal vegetables and a sauce or broth to cook it all in. The choice of protein depends on your taste and budget, and popular nabe types have been a reflection of the times throughout the years.

The gyū-nabe (beef hot pot) was one of the cultural icons of the Meiji Restoration, from around 1868, as the populace was strongly urged to adopt Western customs — including the consumption of beef, which had previously been forbidden. Much later on, when the bubble economy of the 1980s ended and people felt the need to tighten their financial belts, the humble, inexpensive motsu-nabe (offal hot pot) became the signature dish of the newly fashionable B-kyū (B-grade) gourmet trend of the 1990s.

This month’s recipe is for a perennial favorite nabe that features fresh cod, which is in season right now. Or you can use chopped chicken on the bone, oysters, monkfish, thinly sliced pork and so on instead of the cod — or be adventurous and try combining one or more.

Nabe is also a great way to get your kids to eat lots of vegetables, because it’s fun to join in with the food preparation, but keep small hands away from the burner and the red-hot pot!

Recipe: Cod hot pot

Serves 4


4 fresh cod filets (about 250 g)
A little coarse salt
1 large piece konbu seaweed for dashi (about 20 × 8 cm)
1 large block silken or firm tofu (about 300 g)
2 negi (Japanese leeks) or thick green onions
½ medium Chinese or napa cabbage
2 bunches mizuna greens
1 packet buna shimeji mushrooms
1 packet enoki or straw mushrooms
1 bag shirataki noodles (about 200 g)
Your preferred quantity of cooked plain rice or udon noodles
Ponzu sauce, to taste
Grated daikon radish, to taste
Yuzu pepper, to taste

The night before, sprinkle the cod filets on both sides with salt. Place them on a layer of paper towels, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

One hour before serving, put the konbu seaweed in an earthenware pot and add enough water to fill the pot about two-thirds. Pat the cod filets dry with paper towels, and cut each one into two or three pieces. Leave the skin on for maximum flavor.

Slice the leeks diagonally into 2-cm-long pieces. Cut the Chinese cabbage into chunks, and cut the mizuna greens about 3 cm long. Shred the shimeji mushrooms into small clusters. Cut the root ends off the enoki mushrooms and shred into small clusters.

Drain the liquid from the pack of shirataki noodles and pour boiling water over them. Drain again. Cut into shorter lengths using kitchen scissors. Drain the tofu and cut into large cubes.

Set the earthenware pot on a tabletop burner and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and put in some of the cod, cabbage, mizuna, mushrooms, shirataki noodles and tofu. Take things out of the pot once they’ve cooked, and eat with ponzu sauce, grated daikon radish and yuzu pepper to taste. Keep replacing them as you go. Adjust the heat if the broth is boiling too fast.

When most of the contents of the pot have been eaten, add cooked rice or udon noodles to the pot and simmer until heated through. Eat the rice or noodles with the broth to finish the meal.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.

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