On the brink of feasting and cleansing
Every year when December rolls around, I know that the eating spree will commence. And as much as we (yes, we, since I imagine many can relate) try to avoid it, the food, the wine, the sweets, they are all there, and very impossible to resist. I suppose it is ingrained in our nature to do so. As the winter sets in, we should have completed our hunting and gathering, storing an extra layer for the desolate awaiting months. Perhaps it is just an attempt to rationalize holiday feasting, but I would prefer to think of myself as getting in touch with my Paleolithic ancestors than simply succumbing to saccharine indulgence.
Nevertheless, I was pleased to recently be invited by Mizuki and Miki for a Japanese dinner of ‘hot pot’ or Kimuchi Nabe. To be honest, I had expectations of a rather light meal. I mean, soup. The word smacks more of detox January than it does the excesses of the holidays. In principle, this is true. But at the end of the meal, I would have sworn I had just eaten an entire goose, red cabbage and potatoes. With gravy. And butter.
The savory and satisfying meal felt cleansing and refreshing, though, and perfect for a snowy December evening. The kimchi’s heat, added at the very end of the process, provided the kick and demonstrated the Japanese love of crossing of culinary cultures. Though most of us associate it with Korean food, the Japanese are equally wild about kimchi. I think its sourness perfectly compliments the umami of the hot pot’s other ingredients.
Nabe is a communal dish if there ever was one. Crucial to the enjoyment of the meal itself is in fact preparing it together with a group. Ideally, it would be cooked on a portable stove in the middle of the dining table, so that everyone can get in on the action. After each individual piece is carefully added with chopsticks to the broth, like ingredients are deliberately kept together in the pot. Why? According to Miki and Mizuki, simply because it looks nicer that way. Extreme? It may be, but then again, all the more reason to have the entire dinner party crowded around the pot at the table during the process. Once the nabe is finished cooking, it is divided bit by bit between the diners until it’s gone and there is only some broth left at the bottom of the pot. It’s a flexible meal; if the consensus of the group is “still hungry”, just set the pot and its concentrated broth back on the stove and add more ingredients. In our case, we added a package of udon noodles to the second batch. If there’s still some soup left at the very end, rice will do the job of soaking it up and certainly filling you up.
Recipe: Kimuchi Nabe / Japanese Hot Pot
Sprinkling of dashi (soup stock granules)
Boiling water in a large soup pot
2 packages (200 grams) shitake mushrooms
1 package (100 grams) enoki mushrooms
medium head of Chinese cabbage, chopped
2 leeks, sliced diagonally (see photo)
1 package of tofu, cut into squares
prawns or shrimp
Japanese rice (vermicelli) noodles
2-3 tablespoons miso paste (or to taste)
soy sauce to taste
1 package kimchee
Japanese rice, enough for five people
1. Bring pot of water with sprinkling of dashi flakes and a spoonful of miso paste to a boil. Dashi derives its taste from bonito or dried fish, which creates a stock chock-full of umami, that elusive salty / sweet / savory flavor.
2. Steam the shitake mushrooms in a pot with water and a paper towel over the top to absorb the foam.
3. Meanwhile, chop cabbage, leeks and tofu. Soak the rice noodles in water according to the instructions on the package.
4. Once the shitake mushrooms are cooked, add to the broth one at a time with chopsticks. Then add the chopped leeks, cabbage, bean sprouts and enoki mushrooms, keeping each type in its own section in the pot.
5. Cook at a low boil for a few minutes and add the shrimp, tofu and some of the kimchi.
6. Continue to cook at the same temperature for a few more minutes and then add the rice noodles. Sample for taste. At this point, you will probably want to add some soy sauce and a couple more spoons of miso paste. Cook a bit further.
7. If desired, just before serving, add the remainder of the kimchi. Place the hot pot in the center of the table and serve into small bowls.
8. When there is only broth left at the bottom of the pot, put it back over heat and add more ingredients, as above. Udon noodles are a good solution here.