Photos by Kara Baker
Photos by Kara Baker

My Paradise: The world of Japanese clay pot cooking

by Kara Baker
Stripes Okinawa

Weeks after finding out our next assignment would be Camp Zama, Japan, and shortly before our arrival in the Land of the Rising Sun, I happened upon a cookbook co-authored by Naoko Takei Moore and Kyle Connaughton. “Donabe: Classic and Modern Clay Pot Cooking” is expertly written and filled with far more than mouth-watering recipes. Chapters about its authors, the history of clay pot cooking, and its role in modern cuisine, all accompanied by stunning photography, beckoned me into the world of Japanese donabe.

Soon, we were settled and living a busy life on-base, our kids in school and often involved in sports and activities on weekends. I welcomed any way to connect to our host nation, its rich traditions and modern-day society. Donabe cooking did just that, forcing me into Japanese grocery and specialty stores using what little of the language I knew, and gathering my family around a little gas burner as I raised the lid of the donabe, revealing recipe after recipe from my new favorite cookbook.

If you aren’t familiar with the Japanese clay pot known as donabe, its origins date back over 1,000 years. Today, nabe (for short) are often used to prepare and serve hotpot meals tabletop for quick and simple weeknight dishes, more elaborate dinner parties, at restaurants, or even camping and on-the-go. It is this ability to prepare, cook, and serve my family and guests, I’ve found, that makes each nabe meal almost magical.  Simple ingredients transform, steam billowing from the boiling pot like a magician’s smoke, as I serve something that nourishes not just our bodies, but our souls.

Moore describes this phenomenon as nabe o kakomu, or “surrounding a pot.”

“This expression evokes how sharing a hot pot meal at the same table creates an intimate communal experience,” she explains. “It’s the communal dining experience that donabe creates, and it teaches the concept of ichigo-ichie — every moment is a once-in-a-lifetime treasure.”

Just two months into our tour in Japan, I found myself convincing my family to take a road trip to Iga in Mie Prefecture, home of the most coveted nabe in Japan. Millions of years ago, the land that would become Iga was located underneath Lake Biwa, and as a result, its prehistoric clay is rich and porous, yet strong. It has extremely high heat resistance as well as retention, and all these features combined make this particular clay the perfect material for donabe.

Founded in 1832, the most famous manufacturer of Iga-yaki, or Iga-style donabe is Nagatani-en. The company has been run by the same family for eight generations and was designated a Tangible Cultural Property by the Japanese government. I slowly climbed the stairs aside the 16-tiered kiln in awe, and peeked into windows where craftsmen worked, I realized, as they’d done for over a century before. I took in everything, while my feet padded along the very ground that makes Iga-made nabe so very special. My husband and I enjoyed tea with the current chairman’s son, while our children explored the garden surrounding the family’s 200-year-old home. After, we shopped their pottery, which epitomizes ideal Japanese aesthetics — simple and rustic, yet somehow perfectly refined.

Though Iga is certainly worth a visit—it is also the birthplace of Basho Matsuo, Japan’s most famous haiku poet, and the center of all things ninja—you can also shop Nagatani-en’s retail store Iga-Mono in Ebisu, Tokyo. Not far from the New Sanno Hotel, it’s run by the ninth generation of the Nagatani-en family. We have visited a number of times and, surrounded by the pottery and esthetic of Iga-mono, I’m always transported back to the little town in Mie Prefecture famous for its clay and craftsmanship.

Sadly, as we are about to PCS, our most recent visit will be our last. Heart-broken over having to say goodbye to the country that has truly become our home over the past three years, I take great comfort in the fact that clay pot cooking will forever keep us connected to Japan. Therefore, my paradise, rather than any one destination, is now anywhere a donabe sits warming atop a flame, with friends and family gathered around, celebrating Japanese cooking and culture.

 

Donabe

Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking can be purchased in English from amazon.com.

Nagatani-en donabe, Iga-yaki pottery, ingredients, and other specialty Japanese products can be purchased online from toirokitchen.com.

Recipes and inspiration for donabe Cooking can be found on Naoko Takei Moore’s Instagram account mrsdonabe.

 

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