As days get colder and colder, what’s the best thing to eat that can provide that much-needed warmth? Look no further than the versatile nabe i.e. hot pot, which can take on a dizzying array of variations in Japan! From the common sukiyaki to the motsunabe (which probably requires a bit of courage to stomach if you can’t handle the thought of eating tripe) there’s always something for everyone looking for a piping hot and hearty meal most suitable for this season. Do you know that there are four types of nabe in Japan with names of flowers and trees? Join me in meeting the “F4” of the nabe world and discover why you should try them during this period of the year!
Before introducing the F4 nabe, let me explain why there was a need to name them as such by mentioning Japan’s history of meat consumption. Centuries ago, before Japan started raising domestic livestock for consumption, people got their meat primarily through hunting. As such, eating deer and wild boar meat was more common than eating chicken, pork, or beef.
With the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, there was a time when eating meat was frowned upon. This subsequently led to a time when people developed a general dislike for eating meat. Despite so, the widely accepted view was that meat acquired from hunting could be consumed but the killing of animals for meat was not okay. In addition, the more legs the animal had (except the octopus and squid), it was seen as more unacceptable to kill such animals for food. It was only during the accelerated growth period after World War II ended that the consumption volume of meat in Japan exceeded that of seafood.
Back in the Nara period, due to the influence of Buddhism, killing of animals and eating of their meat was banned. As for hunting, those methods using traps and spears that shot towards the animals when the trap was triggered were also prohibited. During the farming periods of April to September, it was even specified that animals including cows, horses, dogs, monkeys, and chickens could not be eaten but people were free to eat deer meat and pork.
Among the aristocratic class, chickens were used in the dishes offered during New Year ceremonies, and the nobles turned to dairy products and milk for protein. However, as Buddhism was not widely spread among the commoners, they continued to eat meat despite the restrictions imposed on them. The subsequent eras saw tightening or easing of the meat eating bans depending on who was in power and the social trends. For example, during the Kamakura period when the samurai class exerted more power, the bans were significantly less strictly enforced, but when it progressed to the Edo period, the bans were yet again enforced.
What remained relatively unchanged over the years was that the nobles tended to stick to the bans while the commoners were eating meat on the sly. As such, this gave rise to the need to use alternative names such as those of flowers and plants to refer to meat. For example, “botan (牡丹)” i.e. peony was used to represent pork because it was usually cut and served to look like a peony flower. Deer meat was known as “momiji (紅葉)” i.e. maple leaves as the animal appears in the October card of the hanafuda (花札) i.e. Japanese playing cards which were based on the Japanese anthology named Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首). The “sakura (桜)” i.e. cherry blossom was used to refer to horse meat as the colors of the meat and sakura are similar. Last but not least, the “kashiwa (柏)” i.e. oak was the synonym of chicken because of the resemblance in the colors between the feathers of the chicken and the kashiwa’s leaves.
Now, let’s find out more about the F4 nabe!
Botan Nabe i.e. peony hot pot is named as such because of the use of thin pork slices which are arranged to look like the flower as shown in the photo above. The usual ingredients for this nabe include vegetables, mushrooms, tubers, konnyaku, wheat bran, tofu, and pork, but the broth tends to differ across different regions. Most versions would use a dashi i.e. soup stock made from seaweed and bonito flakes with miso or soy sauce added. For extra flavor, Japanese wine or mirin is added. On the other hand, the Edo style uses a sukiyaki-style stock called warishita (割り下) made from soy sauce and sugar with soybean or hatcho miso (八丁味噌) added to thicken the soup. When you eat the Edo style Botan Nabe, a dipping sauce made from raw eggs and Japanese peppers is used.
Botan Nabe is especially popular in the mountainous areas of Japan where pork is easily acquired. As such, there are some places that are well known for this dish. Here are two places you must visit just so you can try their Botan Nabe!
i. Shishi Nabe Ressha (しし鍋列車)
樽見鉄道のしし鍋列車に乗車完了^_^ 想像よりも随分美味しくて感動！！温泉入浴券付きで、とてもオススメのミニ旅行だ！ pic.twitter.com/uDl6JFGext
— 駅弁マニア (@mori4141harueki) December 15, 2016
In Gifu Prefecture, there is a limited edition train service called Shishi Nabe Ressha (Japanese only) running on the Tarumi Line from Ogaki Station (大垣駅) to Tarumi Station (樽見駅) on Thursdays between December and February each year except during the year-end and New Year holidays. Take note that there is a need to change to a special train at Motosu Station (本巣駅).
During the ride, which takes approximately 1 hour and 5 minutes, a meal consisting of the Botan Nabe (they call it Shishi Nabe here because of the use of wild boar’s meat rather than pork) and other in-season local dishes is served to passengers as they take in the sights along the journey. At a price of 5,500 yen per person, the package also includes an entry ticket to the Usuzumi Onsen (うすずみ温泉), a discount ticket to Jishin Danso Kansatsukan / Taikenkan (地震断層観察館・体験館) i.e. Seismic Faults Observation and Experience House, and a one-day full access ticket on the Tarumi Line between Ogaki Station and Tarumi Station. Upon arrival at Tarumi Station, there will be a shuttle bus which will bring you to Usuzumi Onsen, after which you can go anywhere you like.
Take note, though, that you will need to make reservations by calling 0581-34-8039 at least 10 days in advance. If there are less than 25 people who have signed up for this train service on your selected day, the service might be canceled. As such, the railway company will contact you before your trip to confirm if it is going to push through as planned and will send the information package which contains the ticket and instructions to your mailing address. If you have a group of 25 people or above, the railway company can arrange a special carriage for your group provided that you contact them in advance.
ii. Sasayama City’s (篠山市) Botan Nabe
Another place you should not miss when it comes to savoring Botan Nabe is Sasayama in Hyogo Prefecture, which is one of the top three hunting grounds for wild boar along with Amagi (天城) on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture and Gujo City (郡上市) in Gifu Prefecture. Besides the fact that the Botan Nabe from Sasayama has been listed in the top 100 local cuisines by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries since 2007, it is also the place of origin for Botan Nabe and the version with a miso-based soup was first conceptualized here.
Every year, the Botan Nabe season in Sasayama (Japanese only) will run from 15 November to 15 February the following year. As the mountainous areas of the city are famous for its pork, this is a dish that has been favored by the locals and visitors for its unique flavor, a good source of energy and boost to vitality, and its ability to warm the body from the inside. Most Botan Nabe found here will have a mixture of white and red miso (proportion of each type differs across different restaurants) added to the dashi soup along with powdered Japanese peppers, mirin, and sugar. Other variations include the chestnut miso, warishita, clear dashi, and white miso soup stocks. Unlike beef, the pork is simmered in the hot pot’s soup base for as long as possible so that the flavors seep into the tender meat.
Momiji Nabe is a venison hot pot which includes ingredients such as burdock, shiitake mushrooms, spring onions, konnyaku, tofu, and vegetables that are cooked in a soup made from bonito flakes and miso. Although venison is readily available throughout the year, it is said that the best season to eat this meat is during summer and autumn as it prevents fatigue from the summer heat and replenishes the body with its rich nutrients during the colder autumn.
As deer eat a lot of plants and grass, it is highly regarded in the field of Oriental medicine as a type of meat with medicinal benefits. Venison is also well known for its high protein, low calorie and fat content, and being rich in iron to prevent anemia, so it is gaining popularity especially among the health conscious. Note, though, that most of the venison found in Japan are imported from France and New Zealand, so the domestic ones are generally more expensive than the imported ones.
Tamba (丹波市) in Hyogo Prefecture is especially well known for its venison, obtained from wild deer roaming in its mountainous areas, which is used when making Momiji Nabe. Here, this hot pot is also known by another name – Shikakui Nabe (しかくぃ鍋), which literally means “eating the deer” as “shika” means “deer” and “kui” means “eat.”
On Hyogo Prefecture’s website (Japanese only), Hayama is recommended as a place to go to for Momiji Nabe and other venison dishes. If you look at Hayama’s website (Japanese only), there are many variations of Shikakui Nabe such as the standard type, red miso, white miso, oden-style, etc. The Shikakui Nabe sets here typically include a venison salad, venison spare ribs, seasonal vegetables, and udon along with the hot pot.
Sakura Nabe uses horse meat, which is typically eaten like sukiyaki with miso added to the warishita soup stock and ingredients such as spring onions and shirataki (しらたき) i.e. noodles made from konnyaku and chrysanthemum. As fresh horse meat has a color which resembles that of sakura’s, it was nicknamed as such in the old days when eating meat was banned in Japan. Over time, though, the iron content in the meat will cause a change in color to a darker brown tone.
Sakura Nabe was said to have originated in the Tokyo red-light district of Yoshiwara during the Meiji era, and is a dish highly regarded for boosting one’s vitality. As such, this dish can be found in Tokyo as well as in prefectures such as Nagano and Kumamoto which are well known for being top producers of horse meat. Horse meat contains high protein and iron and has low calories and fat which makes it easy to be digested by the human body. The Sakura Nabe is especially recommended to be eaten during the cold winter season.
In Tokyo, you can visit Sakura nabe Nakae (桜なべ中江) which was established in Yoshiwara during the Meiji era. Having a long history of 110 years, this restaurant specializes in Sakura Nabe and is offering a variety of set meals which cost between 7,200 yen and 10,200 yen (exclusive of tax) depending on which cut of horse meat you order. Besides this, you can also try raw and grilled horse meat.
Note that Nakae is closed on Mondays and only opens for dinner on weekdays from 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm. During weekends and public holidays, they are open for the entire day from 11:30 am to 9:00 pm. To get here, take the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line to Minowa Station (三ノ輪駅) and walk from Exit 3 for 9 minutes.
Last but not least, Kashiwa Nabe is a local dish from Aichi Prefecture that features chicken as its main ingredient, and uses a light soup base primarily made of ponzu and soy sauce. However, there is another variation which is called Kashiwa Miso Nabe whereby miso is added to the standard soup base so as to give it a stronger flavor. Typical ingredients in this hot pot include mushrooms, vegetables, and tofu.
To experience the best of both worlds, you can consider visiting Raku (楽), s a restaurant located in Nagoya’s Naka Ward that offers both Kashiwa and Kashiwa Miso Nabe. It is recommended that you call the restaurant at 052-951-1125 beforehand to make reservations. The restaurant is open every day from 12:00 pm to 10:00 pm except on Sundays and public holidays. To get here, take the subway and alight at Sakae Station (栄駅) before leaving from the first exit and walking for seven minutes.
Now that you have learned about the F4 nabe, how about giving them a try during your Japan trip and get that much-needed warmth during the cold season?