Food & Drink

5 of Japan’s Most Delicious Hotpot Experiences ・ Nabe, a Japanese Wintertime Favorite

No matter the weather, friends and family around Japan love to gather for some delicious hotpot, but there’s no doubt that this dish warms hearts on cold nights.

1. The Classic ・ Shabu-shabu


Japanese hotpot: served throughout the year at restaurants, enjoyed at home using hotplates on the dinner table, but most beloved in the colder months of the year, when family and friends gather together around steaming pots of flavorful broth, fragrant vegetables, and tender cuts of meat. In Japanese, hotpot is called “nabe” (鍋), which literally just means “pot” – a logical name for a dish that can encompass all kinds of flavors and textures. But no matter what kind of “nabe” it might be, hotpot brings warm memories to just about anyone who’s spent a winter in Japan.

Although it only caught on in Japan during the mid-20th century, shabu-shabu is about as basic as it gets with Japanese hotpot. The broth is usually just a simple Japanese dashi stock – sometimes it’s just a pot of hot water with a piece of konbu (seaweed) added for a little umami, setting the stage for the true star of the show. Most shabu-shabu is centered around super-thin slices of beef, which diners can cook one slice at a time, by dragging the meat through the hot water for just a second or two. Between the fun dining experience, and the delectable flavors, it’s easy to see why shabu-shabu has become such a staple in the last hundred years.

▶︎ This shabu-shabu is from Hassan, in Tokyo’s Roppongi neighborhood.

2. The Famous ・ Sukiyaki


Why the name Sukiyaki was given to Kyu Sakamoto’s popular song from the 60s is unclear, but the actual hotpot dish sukiyaki certainly deserves some fame on its own merits. While sukiyaki often uses thin slices of beef just like shabu-shabu, the meat and vegetables are instead simmered in a pot of sweet broth flavored with soy sauce, mirin, and a good amount of sugar. The end result is a totally different kind of savory-sweet experience, and for added richness, people in Japan will usually dip the cooked ingredients into a dish of fresh, raw egg before popping each bite into their mouths. First-time diners sometimes shy away from the little dipping dish of slippery yellow egg yolk, but raw egg is a common part of Japanese cuisine, in sukiyaki and other dishes like tamago-kake gohan. Adventures eaters should be sure to give it a try!

▶︎ This Ise Beef sukiyaki is from Butasute, near Tokyo Station.

3. The Local ・ Kiritanpo Nabe


Some kinds of nabe are common all around Japan, but other varieties are only found in one part of the country or another. Akita takes advantage of a local specialty to make their own unique nabe, featuring “kiritanpo,” a kind of rice cake with a much less smooth and elastic texture than classic mochi, and a firmer bite. Kiritanpo are often grilled and eaten with miso these days, and traditionally they were usually toasted over the open hearths found in old-fashioned Japanese homes, but when the weather cools and it’s time for some hotpot to warm you up from the inside out – well, the people of Akita will cook their unique cylindrical rice cakes up that way, too! Since it’s made in a vegetable-filled chicken broth, kiritanpo nabe is really a lot like Akita’s very own chicken-noodle soup, with the substantial rice cakes taking the place of the flimsy pasta.

▶︎ This kiritanpo nabe is actually from Tokyo, courtesy of Akita-themed izakaya Namahage, in Ginza.

4. The Specialist ・ Kani Shabu


Of course, while staples like beef, chicken, or pork are at the heart of Japanese hotpot culture, the world of nabe is wide enough to welcome palates of all kinds. The people of Japan tend to appreciate specialty ingredients, from local produce to this season’s freshest catch, so it only makes sense for restaurants specializing in one particularly ingredient – crab, perhaps – to offer those ingredients in hotpot form, as well! Crab hotpot is somewhat uncommon, but not so rare as to make it impossible to find, meaning it’s a perfect treat for those crab-lovers out there who savor each succulent mouthful of this tasty crustacean. Spots specializing in crab (kani/カニ in Japanese) will present trays of raw crab legs for shabu-shabu, each one ready to be swished through a pot of delicate broth for just a moment before the meat loses its fragile translucency, and turns into a flavor-filled bite of ocean flavor.

▶︎ This crab hotpot is from Kani Doraku, a slightly upscale chain of restaurants found around Japan, focused entirely on crab.

5. The Unusual ・ Hotaru-ika Nabe


Last but not least, sometimes hotpot is a great way to try something new, like this dish that’s perfect for foodies with an adventurous palate. Like kiritanpo nabe, this is a local specialty, and like kani-shabu, it uses seafood to take shabu-shabu to the next level, but hotaru-ika nabe is designed around one centerpiece: bioluminescent firefly squid, caught fresh from the waters of Toyama Bay. In the wild, these small cephalopods are known to glow blue in the nighttime sea, and sightseers will go out on the water to catch a glimpse of the enchanting view. On the dinner table, the squid shine as the star ingredient in this hotpot, and diners will dip the squid into the hot water before popping one into their mouth, eating the little squid whole! Each bite is a unique mixture of textures and flavors, coming from all the different parts of the squid, but fans of the dish praise the sweet flavor of the carefully cooked meat. Head over to Toyama in April or May to sample this unique delicacy!

▶︎ This hotaru-ika nabe is from Unazuki Onsen Togen Ryokan, which serves this local specialty to visitors spending time at the local hot springs.

The Wide World of Nabe

From classic dishes of simple broth and tender beef, to sweet soups and local specialties both simple and strange, hotpot can mean a lot of things in Japan, each one more delicious than the last. So whether you have a favorite local hotpot spot, or love to make it at home with family and friends, don’t miss out on some good old hotpot to warm you up from the inside out when the chilly weather starts to get you down!

Basic Info

Name: Japanese Hotpot

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