Donabe – Make the most from this versatile kitchen powerhouse!

Having lived in Japan, I’ve amassed quite a collection of Japanese cookbooks and housewares, the one exception being a donabe, a clay pot used to stew, simmer, steam, and smoke. Perhaps best known as the vessel in which oden is cooked, the donabe is an extremely versatile tool and durable as well. From the words “do” (土), “earth”, and nabe (鍋), “pot,” donabe are used to cook dishes known as nabemono, including shabu-shabu.

There are relatively few works in English that focus on the donabe, so I was thrilled to review Naoko Takei Moore and Kyle Connaughton’s “Donabe” when it came out. Naoko grew up in Tokyo, and like many Japanese, associated donabes with hot pot until she had rice made in a double-lid donabe; it turned out to be one of the most striking food discoveries that she ever experienced. She began to network with an Iga-based artisanal pottery company to import their donabe to the United States.

Six styles of donabe pots are covered here: classic, rice cooker, soup and stew, steamer, tagi ne style, and smoker. Note that donabe are best used with gas or on a portable butane stove (a common fixture in most Japanese homes and hotpot restaurants); they should not be used on induction or ceramic cooktops. Like other clay vessels, do not submit your donabe to drastic changes in temperature or heat when empty as the clay may crack. With proper care and seasoning, a donabe can last for several decades of faithful use.

After a very thorough 50-page introduction into the history, production, seasoning and care of donabe, the six types of recipes begin. Rice measurements are based on the traditional Japanese unit “go.” Nonrice measurements use US measurements with metric equivalents. An extensive glossary provides additional guidance on ingredients and resources. Recipes are also labeled as vegan or vegetarian as appropriate. As a longtime vegetarian / pescetarian, I appreciated this touch as Japanese cuisine is not very vegetarian-friendly with the exception of vegan temple cuisine (shojin ryori); even most vegetable dishes like daikon “steaks” feature katsuobushi, shavings of dried smoked bonito.

Classic-style donabe includes various hot pots, while double-lid donabe rice cooker recipes include salted kombu and ginger rice, salmon and hijiki rice, English peas and yuba rice (I love cooking with yuba, dried tofu “skin” made from soymilk), green tea rice balls, azuki sticky rice, and crab dashi. Some of my favorites are featured in the steamer chapter (savory steamed soy custard with saikyo miso sauce, steamed black cod in fermented black bean sauce, green tea steam cake) and the tagine chapter (sizzling tofu and mushrooms in miso sauce, steam-roasted fingerling potatoes, steam-fried vegetables with creamy sesame-tofu dipping sauce, crunchy lotus root in black vinegar sauce). Using the donabe as a smoker was new for me, and I loved the very Western smoked Camembert, nuts, and dried figs with rosemary and more traditional smoked miso-marinated tofu. Basic dashi and condiments such as kombu and shiitake dashi, yuzu ponzu, saikyo miso aioli, and sesame dipping sauce are also provided. The gorgeous photography by Eric Wolfinger showcases traditional donabe craftsmen at work, along with beautifully shot still lifes of donabes at work. Each recipe has a gorgeous full-color photo that accompanies it.

Overall, “Donabe” is a gorgeous cookbook that has filled a void in my extensive Japanese cookbook collection. It is an excellent guide to making the most of this versatile tool (if you do not currently have a donabe, I imagine that an Emile Henry or Revol clay French oven could be used to make these recipes equally successfully for the most part) and includes many fantastic rice-based dishes that will be sure to make it into regular rotation as we enter winter!

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