Is there any food more comforting and satisfying than a nabe? Sitting around a bubbling casserole watching your dinner cook satisfies all the senses, nourishing the soul as you fill and heat your body. So why aren’t there more places like Nabeya?
My latest column in the Japan Times is a paean to the classic hotpot specialist, Nabeya. Here are a few more images to set the scene…
This old-time gem lies hidden away in the dingy, seen-better-days back streets of Otsuka, on the northernmost section of Tokyo's Yamanote loop line.
Chef Hiroshi Fukuda helped his father set up the restaurant in the hard-scrabble years following World War Two. Serving nabe hot pots was one of the simplest, most nutritious styles of cooking. The restaurant premises have been through a couple of incarnations since then – until the late 1980s, it was a wonderful old two-story wooden house; now Nabeya occupies the bottom two floors of a condominium building – but the style of cuisine remains unchanged.
Fukuda is 79 now and still hale and spry. Over the years he has become an authority on the traditional food culture of Tokyo, with books to his name about the way people used to eat in the days when the city was still called Edo and was ruled by shoguns.
He runs Nabeya with his wife, who greets you at the entrance, waits as you climb out of your shoes, and then shows you to your private room.
There are just four chambers, all traditional in style with tatami mats, shoji screens over the windows, timber beams and some beautiful scrolls and wall hangings. The largest of the upstairs rooms is the most impressive.
If you (or your knees) are not that thrilled about sitting at a low table, there are two alternatives. The room on the ground floor is equipped with horigotatsu-style seating (a table with a leg-well) for parties of four to six.
If there are just two of you (or four smallish people), the room you are likely to be assigned is the smallest one (upstairs), which has a proper table and chairs (on the tatami).
As the name proclaims, Nabeya serves only one kind of food – just the way it has done ever since it opened: nabe hot pots, cooked at the table in front of you.
Basically, the classic wintertime dish is a superlative chicken/seafood/ vegetable hot pot. Other places would just call this yose (mixed). But here it's been given a more poetic name: Horai-nabe, after a mountain of Buddhist legend.
It's a fixed (and fixed-price) menu, shared by everyone at the table. If you want to make adjustments to the ingredients, the time to do that is when you phone to reserve.
The meal always opens with a tray of simple zensai (appetisers). This is what we were served early this winter:
The sashimi (back right) will change with the season: it's saba (mackerel) here. And so will the aemono (dressed vegetables; back left). There will also be a small serving of tsukudani relish (in the center): in this case it's iwa-nori seaweed.
But the dishes at the front stay the same year-round: tamago-yaki omelet; and a couple of dried urume-iwashi (sardines), which are very simple but full of umami, and nice to chew on while sipping on beer or sake.
Here's another zensai tray, this one served earlier last autumn…
While you're nibbling into this, preferably with a flask of sake at hand, your nabe is being readied. The casserole itself contains a special dashi stock made from katsuobushi (bonito flakes) but, unusually, using no kombu (kelp).
Fukuda says this is the way it was done in the old days, when traders in Osaka monopolised the kombu trade from Hokkaido, leaving little for the folks in Edo. There's another reason: kombu tends to make the dashi cloudy; without it the colour is a clear, golden brown.
These will include salmon, cod, hamaguri clams, a good variety of vegetables, chicken, tofu, soft-boiled quail’s eggs, noodles and mushrooms, along with a couple of saimaki-ebi – young kuruma-ebi (king prawns) – so fresh they are still quivering.
When it's been brought up to heat, that's the time for the ingredients to be carefully placed into it, a little at a time.
Not that you need to do the actual cooking. This is handled by your waitress. She places the ingredients expertly into the bubbling broth and then, with equal deftness, ladles them onto your plate when they are cooked.
The saimaki-ebi are one of the highlights. But everything tastes good when you're watching and smelling your dinner cooking.
Mrs. Fukuda will also look in from time to time, to check on things and attend to the final stages of the nabe.
You will have already eaten the udon noodles that came with all the other ingredients. Now it's time for ojiya – rice cooked down in the last of the broth with a beaten egg until it forms a rich porridge.
This is rib-sticking, stomach-filling, bulking-up fare, expressly designed to fill the last remaining stomach space. You will not leave Nabeya feeling hungry. In the slightest.
A light dessert is served to close the meal. Usually it will be just a sliver or two of fruit, such as this beautifully ripe persimmon that had been lightly seared to blister its skin – as much for appearance as flavour.
Sometimes, though, Fukuda gets creative and comes up with his own ideas. The last time we were there, he also produced a dessert that looked spectacular – in fact, almost molecular in appearance. Tofu encased in an angular layer of clear kanten jelly, served with a thick sweet kuro-mitsu (raw sugar) syrup.
In terms of flavour, the tofu was too pronounced, and the kanten too bland. But it was so good to look at. And it slipped down beautifully…
Finally it is time to settle up – at ¥15,000 per head, plus incidentals, it's always more than you expect, especially as you are asked to pay in banknotes (rather than plastic) – and then make your way out into the night. Returning slowly to the 21st century from this little time warp that feels as though it is stuck forever in the postwar Showa years.
The Fukudas will be there to see you off…
Here's the link to my Japan Times article…
And here's a map link to Nabeya…