Cooking with Donabe: The Japanese Clay Pot
November 10, 2016
Donabe is a traditional Japanese pot. This clay pot is used to create warm dishes, which are essential on cold winter days at the Japanese dinner table.
Meet Naoko Takei Moore, who is an expert of cooking with donabe. A Tokyo native now residing in Los Angeles, she is passionate about bringing Japanese food culture abroad. Mrs. Moore is a donabe specialist and offers cooking lessons at her base in L.A., as well as on her YouTube channel. She is also the author of Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking, in which she wrote about donabe history, culture, and which is filled with many of her recipes.
What is donabe?
A donabe is a type of Japanese clay cookware, used to cook hot pot dishes that can be enjoyed in any season. This traditional Japanese earthenware is very versatile, and can be used over a gas or open flame. Donabe can be used to make a variety of recipes, such as hot pot, soup, stew, and for steaming ingredients, making rice and many other cooking styles. Donabe is also beautiful to look at, and it comes in various and unique designs, as well as in many different sizes to accommodate every need and household.
A little bit of history
Donabe has a long history: clay pots were first mentioned in historical documents dating from the 8th century, and became more widely used in the 17th century, the middle Edo period. Back then, people would serve a hot pot over a portable charcoal grill set on tatami mats or directly at the dining table. This tradition is at the root of the donabe dining style that is popular in Japan today.
Bringing everyone together
In Japan, families and groups of friends often eat donabe. Everyone sits around a table, surrounding a pot (nabe in Japanese), and shares a communal meal. A donabe meal is convenient for any occasion: it can be a simple weeknight meal that only requires simmering meat or fish with vegetables, or it can be turned into a festive occasion to entertain dinner guests. Eating nabe, as it is referred to in Japan, encourages participation, interaction and bonding.
Donabe makes food taste better
The secret to the delicious taste of the food cooked in donabe is the clay in which it is made. Food cooked in donabe is higher in natural umami flavor, which means a pleasant savory taste that makes food delicious. And since donabe dishes are so flavorful, less seasonings and less fats are needed to enhance the taste, so they are healthier.
How to choose a donabe
Photo by Vivian Morelli
Picking the right donabe is the first important step. Choosing one that will last a long time and that will be used more often is key. When it comes to the material, donabe made of coarse clay has the highest heat-retention capability, and it distributes the heat better than their thinly-made counterparts. Artisanal donabe is more expensive, but they are also more likely to be made with higher-quality clay, and therefore will be more durable. As for the size, smaller is easier to handle but a bigger-sized donabe allows you to cook more ingredients. There is an assortment of designs to choose from, but whether you like something more rustic or go for a sleek design, the food will taste delectable.
Iga, the home of donabe
Iga is a historic province in a mountainous countryside, located in Mie prefecture, about 340 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. Iga is one of the oldest and most prestigious pottery-making regions in Japan. Thanks to its pristine natural scenery and rich history, Iga offers a number of valuable artisanal specialties. Iga-style pottery has a history of almost 1300 years, and it was developed because the clay of that region is particularly heat-resistant. Donabe from Iga is known for its rustic beauty and natural, earthy characteristics.
Interview with Naoko Moore
Photo by Eric Wolfinger
Q. How did you first become acquainted with donabe?
Most Japanese people just naturally grew up eating donabe dishes, especially in the winter time as donabe hot pot. In my family, we prepared so many different donabe hot pot dishes as I grew up, everybody just participated in cooking it at the table. I learned as part of the regular family dining experiences naturally. While I was mainly using donabe for hot pot and stewed dishes, I tasted rice cooked in donabe in one of my trips back to Japan. I was so shocked by how amazing the rice tasted. So, I bought their donabe and carried it back to LA. I became a big fan of their donabe.
Q. How does donabe make food taste better?
Donabe distributes the heat more gently and evenly compares to other types of pots. Also, because of the remarkable heat retention ability of the donabe, once you turn off the heat, donabe cools down very slowly. That's when all the flavors develop so well and taste full and complete.
Q. Why do you think donabe is a great meal for a group of people?
Omotenashi is the Japanese concept of hospitality. It's not just about making a special meal to entertain the guests. It's sometimes more subtle and deep. Even if you are making a simple dish with donabe, sharing a meal out of one pot make people feel closer to each other and creates warm feelings naturally. Donabe is not just a tool, but a way of bonding with people and making people relaxed. Donabe warms people's hearts and that's the best omotenashi.
Q. What is your favorite dish to cook in donabe?
Tough question! There are too many donabe dishes I love and the number keeps growing. If I have to list a few, plain white rice is something so simple and special. I also love tori nabe (chicken hot pot) and mabo tofu.
Q. What is a simple dish you would recommend cooking for someone using donabe for the first time?
You can try a simple hot pot dish, such as yu-dofu (simmered tofu) or yose nabe (hot pot with mixed ingredients).
Q. Do you have any special tips for using donabe?
For a hot pot dish, make sure to prep all the ingredients to cook in a donabe in advance, then you can enjoy communal cooking/ dining right at the table.
Interview: Vivian Morelli