Every culture has its own version of comfort food, and as fall turns to winter, for many Japanese that means sitting around a donabe (earthenware hot pot) with family and friends. But what is it that makes donabe cooking so special? Japanese homecooking instructor and owner of toiro kitchen, Naoko Takei Moore, has just published a book about this style of cooking, titled, Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking with Sonoma County chef, Kyle Connaughton.
Naoko and Kyle first tasted and fell for the creamy broth and elegant flavor of this Saikyo-Style Miso Nabe (Hot Pot) at the historic headquarters of the original maker, Honda Miso Honten. Founded in Kyoto during the early 19th century, they have been producing their signature sweet white miso ever since.
Saikyo miso has a mild, sweet flavor that makes it a versatile ingredient for both savory dishes and desserts. The secret to this particular recipe is a splash of rice vinegar, which adds a refreshing accent to the sweet saikyo miso flavor. You can always adjust the amount of Saikyo miso in this dish according to your own taste.
True Saikyo miso can be found at most Japanese markets, but if you can’t find it, you can also substitute shiro miso (regular white miso), which is less sweet and has a higher salt content. To compensate, use ½–⅔ less the amount of miso.
Equipment: One classic-style donabe (2.5 qt/2.5 L or larger)
1 lb (450 g) pork belly, cut into bite-size pieces
1 medium carrot (3½ oz/100 g), julienned into 1/8-inch (3 mm) strips
1 head broccoli (8 oz/240 g), cut into bite-size pieces
1 russet or white potato (8 oz/240 g), peeled and julienned into ¼-inch (5 mm) strips
½ head green cabbage (10 oz/300 g), cut into strips
Sea salt, a pinch
4 cups (1 L) Kombu & Bonito Dashi (see recipe below)
10 oz (300 g) Saikyo miso or other sweet white miso, or more if desired
2 tbsps white sesame paste (tahini is fine)
1½ tsps unseasoned rice vinegar, or more if desired
Green onions (white and green parts), minced for garnish
Karashi (Japanese mustard), for serving; substitute Dijon mustard for a milder flavor
To cook the vegetables and meat: Bring a medium pot of water to a boil and add a generous pinch of salt. Add the cabbage and blanch until partly cooked but still crisp, about 30 seconds. Strain the cabbage out of the water and let it cool down. Using the same pot of water, repeat the process, first for the carrot and then for the broccoli, blanching each for 30 to 60 seconds. Finally, blanch the potato in the same pot of water for about 2 minutes, until slightly tender and drain. Heat a sauté pan over medium heat and sauté the pork belly pieces until the meat is just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer meat to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.
To make the broth: Pour the dashi into the donabe and cover. Set to medium-high heat. As soon as the broth starts to boil, reduce the heat to a simmer. In a separate bowl, whisk together the Saikyo miso and sesame paste with a ladleful of dash (from the donabe) until smooth. Stir this mixture into the donabe. Taste and add more Saikyo miso if you’d like the broth to be creamier and richer.
Next, add the cabbage, potato and pork belly, side by side, followed by the broccoli and carrot, pushing them between the other ingredients. Cover and return to a simmer. Simmer until everything is cooked to your desired doneness, about 3 to 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and drizzle with the vinegar.
Serve in individual bowls at table, sprinkled with minced green onion and karashi on the side.
Vegan option: Substitute Bonito Dashi for Kombu Dashi and omit the pork for tofu instead.
Shime (finishing course) suggestion: Add ramen to the remaining broth.
Yield: Makes about 7 cups (1.8 L)
This is a basic dashi (stock) that can be used in a wide variety of Japanese dishes. It’s commonly called awase dashi (blend dashi) or ichiban dashi (first dashi). Once you have dried kombu (kelp) and katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings) in your pantry, you can easily make it anytime you need it.
Freshly made dashi is perfect for a simple clear soup, allowing you to really appreciate its delicate umami taste. I have included notes on different variations of dashi-making, from more elaborate (longer) versions to shortcuts. Stick with a method that suits you best, or you can use different methods according to the preferred richness of your dashi, and how much time you have. You can also adjust the amount of kombu and/or katsuobushi to your preference. Don’t worry too much about the measurements of these ingredients, or how long to infuse them, especially for your everyday cooking! Just be sure to use high quality ingredients.
Kombu & Bonito Dashi can keep for a few days in the refrigerator. For convenience, you can make a large batch to use over several days, although there is nothing better than the flavor of freshly made dashi.
2 qts (2 L) water, low mineral content preferred (see Naoko’s no below)
3 (4 in/10 cm) square pieces kombu (about ⅔ oz/20 g)
1 oz (30 g) katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings)
Combine the water and kombu in a donabe and let the kombu soak for 30 minutes. The kombu will reconstitute and double in size.
Set the donabe, uncovered, over medium heat. Just before the broth comes to a simmer (after about 20 to 25 minutes), remove the kombu. Then quickly turn up the heat to bring to a simmer; immediately turn off the heat. Add the katsuobushi all at once.
Wait until the katsuobushi settles to the bottom of the donabe, about 2 minutes. Strain into a bowl using a fine-mesh sieve lined with a double layer of damp cheesecloth or a thin cotton cloth. Let the dashi strain by gravity or press very gently. Do not press hard or squeeze, as doing so will add a slight fishy flavor to your dashi.
For everyday cooking at home, I actually strain my dashi directly through a fine-mesh strainer without lining it with a cloth. It’s less fuss! The residue will settle to the bottom of your bowl anyway. But when I need to make very clear dashi, I just gently scoop the katsuobushi from the top without stirring it.
Note: Water in Japan is generally soft (low-mineral-content) water, and that’s the foundation of Japanese cuisine. To best extract the umami flavors (such as glutamate and inosinate) from kombu and katsuobushi, soft water, either filtered or bottled (such as Crystal Geyser or Volvic), is recommended, as these umami components are more soluble in soft water than hard.
Tip: When I’m really short on time and need only a small amount of dashi, here’s a good shortcut: I sometimes use one tea bag–style dashi for convenience. There are slight variations depending on the brand, but essentially, you simply infuse a dashi tea bag in simmering water for a few minutes, and it’s ready. There are many different brands of really tasty dashi tea bags available in Japan, and some are even imported to the United States. When choosing tea bag–style dashi, I suggest you choose a kind that includes only natural ingredients (no MSG or artificial flavors).
Yield varies depending upon ratios
My standard ratio for water to kombu and water to katsuobushi is between 100:1 and 100:1.5 by weight. In other words, for every 4 cups (1 L) of water, use 1/3 to ½ ounce (10–15 g) each of kombu and katsuobushi. For richer dashi, you can adjust the ratio to about 100:3— that is, for the same amount of water, use up to 1 ounce (30 g) each of kombu and katsuobushi. Once you familiarize yourself with the standard ratio of kombu and bonito dashi, it’s also fun to try using different ratios and taste the flavor differences. Once you become your own dashi expert, you can even adjust the ratio dish by dish to your preference. For some dishes, you might prefer an extra-rich flavor of katsuobushi or a very light flavor.
Here are some other (more economical) ways to make richer (higher-umami-level) dashi, using the same amount of kombu. Use just one, or combine them:
1. Increase the soaking time of the kombu in the water to a few hours or even overnight (cold infusion). In this case, use a separate bowl for soaking and transfer to a donabe to heat when ready to make the dashi. Keep refrigerated if the room is warm or if you’re soaking overnight.
2. Once the kombu is reconstituted after soaking in water, use scissors to cut many slits into the kombu. It will infuse more of its flavor this way. Continue to soak longer or begin heating to make dashi.
3. When you heat the kombu in the water to make dashi, start with medium-high heat and turn it down to very low once the water temperature reaches 140°F (60°C). Make sure the temperature stays at the same level and let the kombu infuse for 1 hour. That’s the optimal temperature for kombu to infuse its rich umami flavor (glutamate). Then remove the kombu and follow the rest of the steps above for Bonito & Kombu Dashi.