Spending the past 11 months mainly at home, I’ve devoted far too much screen time to Instagram and TikTok, attempting many of the home cooking trends that popped up on my feed. Sourdough bread? There’s a starter languishing in my fridge after one unsuccessful baking attempt. Dalgona coffee? I whipped up a few cups and deemed it far too sweet to consume on a regular basis. But while I quickly adopted and abandoned these fads, quarantine also led me to discover that there was one item in my kitchen that brought me great joy and comfort during these weird and lonely times: My donabe.
Donabes are earthenware pots, found in traditional Japanese cooking. Made from clay, they’re glazed on the top but not the bottom, ideal for cooking over an open flame. Many cultures across the world use some form of clay pot in their traditional cooking, and having grown up in a Cantonese family, I was familiar with using what we called a bo jai for soups, stews, rice dishes, and more. While on vacation in Tokyo a few years back, I came across a beautiful gray and white donabe, and decided it would be a nice memento of my trip.
As nice of a souvenir as it was, I barely used my donabe when I returned home. Living in New York City, I preferred ordering takeout or heading to a restaurant, even though I enjoyed cooking. But then I moved to Los Angeles and the pandemic struck, leaving me in a new city, intensely homesick, and unable to see friends and family. One of the things I missed most was hot pot, a communal meal where we would sit and chat for hours over a boiling vat of soup, dipping various thinly sliced meats and vegetables. While I couldn’t exactly recreate the social aspect of that experience, my husband and I were able to at least eat the same meal by pulling out the donabe.
That spiraled into more donabe cooking, both elaborate and simple. We mastered the visually impressive Just One Cookbook mille feuille nabe, which is a traditional Japanese donabe dish that consists of thinly sliced napa cabbage and pork belly in a sake broth. We made instant ramen, congee, and dumplings in it. And then we started experimenting with recipes, with some failures along the way like when I made up a butter miso scallop rice recipe without measuring anything that resulted in a burnt bottom and slightly gummy top layer. Whenever we wanted something soothing, nutritious, and quick, we’d find ourselves taking out the donabe and throwing in a mix of vegetables and meat from the fridge. Besides being delicious, it made our Los Angeles apartment finally feel like home.
photo credit: Clockwise from left: A veggie and pork hot pot, steamed salmon over rice, and mille feuille nabe with napa cabbage, daikon, pork, and mushrooms.
Donabe cooking has seen a surge during the pandemic according to Naoko Takei Moore, founder of Toiro Kitchen, a Los Angeles-based store that sells them, and co-author of Donabe: Classic and Modern Clay Pot Cooking. “Demand is so high and some of our pots have waiting lists up to 200 people long,” she says. Moore cites a growing awareness of clay pot cooking and a desire to expand one’s home cooking repertoire as reasons for this newfound popularity. Some of her customers are familiar with using one, but there are plenty of beginners as well, as it’s very newbie-friendly.
Below, Moore also helped us break down a few things to know if you’re considering buying one.
What’s the benefit of cooking with a donabe?
Since they’re made with clay, Moore loves how they heat up slowly and retain that heat over time. When you turn off the flame, a well-made donabe will still cook the food in it, making it an effective cooking vessel to really bring out the flavors in your food. This is why you’ll commonly see stews, soups, and rice recipes. It’s a subtle, gentle way of cooking that makes the most of your ingredients.
Does price make a difference?
Much like art and wine, Moore says that the price of a donabe really comes down to personal preference. You can spend under $100 or over $1,000 depending on the design and origin of the piece. If it’s an artisan who’s shaping and glazing it from start to finish, it’ll be more expensive than more mass produced pieces. Function-wise, the ones Moore carries are the same regardless of price tag.
What’s the difference between all the different types of donabes?
If you look at Toiro Kitchen, you’ll see a wide array of donabes. Some have big side handles, others come with steamer trays, and you’ll even find tiny ones. For beginners, Moore recommends the classic style. It’ll make nearly every recipe, even rice.
What’s the first thing a person should do when they get a donabe?
While you may be tempted to begin cooking immediately, Moore recommends seasoning. She explains that while the inside is glazed, it’s still porous and can absorb both flavors and odors from cooking. In order to protect your purchase, she advises customers to do this first, as you only need to do it once.
To season your donabe, fill it 70% of the way with water and add in cooked rice. The rice should be about 1/5th of the volume of the water. Place the lid on, and bring the rice and water up to a simmer over medium to low heat. Once it begins to simmer, uncover and turn the heat down low. Let the mixture slowly cook, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, until it resembles a thick paste. Turn off the heat and cool your donabe for an hour before discarding the paste. Give the inside a thorough rinse and let it dry completely before you use it.
How do you clean a donabe?
If you properly seasoned a donabe, it’ll be pretty close to being non-stick. Of course, it’s normal to have burnt bits of food stuck to the bottom. For small bits, Moore gently scrapes with a spatula but it’s also fine to let it be: It’ll eventually come off as you cook over time. Should you have something more stubborn, it’s fine to use dish soap and a sponge to get it off. Just avoid the dishwasher.
Can you leave food in it overnight?
While you might be tempted to pop leftovers straight into the fridge (something I’ve been guilty of doing), Moore says you shouldn’t. Clay is porous so prolonged exposure will mean your donabe will absorb odors and flavors leaving you with a sweet potato dish that tastes like last night’s fish soup. For any strong smells, you can always boil water and vinegar to get it out but you’ll have to re-season the pot afterwards.
What about making rice?
Most recipes are easy and don’t require exact measurements but making fluffy rice in a donabe requires more precision. When I mentioned to Moore that I never measured water precisely, using my pinkie finger as a guide, she gently scolded me. Apparently that’s okay if you’re using a non-stick rice cooker, but less effective in a donabe (explaining my less than perfect miso scallop rice.) For white rice she recommends referring to her chart for the correct ratio. Regardless of how much you’re making you’ll need to rinse and soak it for 20 minutes before boiling it on medium heat for 15 minutes. Once you see consistent steam for a few minutes, turn off the heat and let it rest for 20 minutes before serving.
What’s the easiest recipe to try?
Moore’s sardine rice has a cult following among her fans but if you’re looking for something even simpler, she recommends a simple hot pot with chicken or fish, napa cabbage, mushroom, and soy sauce. There’s no need to measure, just adjust the ingredients and flavorings to your liking.
Ready to Get a Donabe? Here Are Five to Try:
If you’re willing to wait, add yourself to Moore’s list and get this beautiful donabe imported from the Iga region. They’re handcrafted by local artisans from an area known for their top notch pottery.
Can’t bear a waiting list? This donabe is in stock and features a steamer tray for vegetables, meats, and more.
For the minimalist who wants a simple white donabe, this affordable one is a top-rated Amazon find that can be shipped in two days.
Sleek and minimal, this one also features a steamer tray.
For the person who loves a beautiful glaze, this green clay vessel is a striking alternative to classic black, white, or gray.
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