Let's go! A Summary of Popular Japanese Food and Condiments Part 2 (Hotpots and Hotplates)



Let's go! A Summary of Popular Japanese Food and Condiments Part 2 (Hotpots and Hotplates)

Part two of our Japanese food guide introduces hotpots and hotplate cooked meals. Dishes introduced in this article includes the following:

[Hotpot meals]
1. Sukiyaki
2. Shabushabu
3. Yose nabe
4. Chanko nabe
5. Mizutaki
6. Ishikari nabe
7. Kimchee nabe
8. Oden
9. Motsu nabe

[Hotplate cooked foods]
1. Okonomiyaki
2. Modern yaki
3. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki
4. Takoyaki
5. Akashiyaki
6. Monja yaki

  • 01

    Hotpot meals (Nabemono)

    The Japanese love, and I mean LOVE, their hotpot-cooked meals. In some homes during the winter, some type of nabemono is served practically every night of the week during the winter. Why do Japanese love their hotpot meals? Well, there are several reasons. First of all, hotpot meals are easy. Basically, you only need to cut up and arrange the raw ingredients on serving dishes, get the hotpot ready, put the ingredients in the pot, and then dip them in various sauces after they have cooked, and finally eat and enjoy. Moreover, hotpot meals are quite healthy, as they include many kinds of vegetables too. In addition, they are able to warm you up, as the steaming pot heats the air and you enjoy the piping hot ingredients taken right from the pot. And finally, hotpot meals are homey too because everyone at the table sits around the hotpot and cooks and eats from the same pot. When it comes to manners, no one picks ingredients directly from the pot and eats as is. Diners always take what they want from the pot and first put it in their own, individual dishes or bowls filled with dipping sauce, and then eat.

    One of the reasons that the Japanese people look forward to winter is it’s the season when they can enjoy these hearty, healthy, and homey hotpot-meals as a warming and fun treat to tide themselves over during the cold winter season. Although these hotpot meals can be cooked and eaten in any season of the year, most people wince at the idea of eating them during the hot and humid summer. However, restaurants specializing in their own niche of hotpot-cooked meals are popular and stay open year around, most notably those serving sukiyaki and shabu shabu. Of course, these restaurants serve these hotpot favorites in the comfort of air-conditioned rooms.

    Clay pots (donabe) and portable stoves are a must-have for nabe.

    Clay pots (donabe) and portable stoves are a must-have for nabe.

    Nowadays, all-you-can-eat (tabe hodai) restaurants serving hotpot meals have become very popular, especially those serving sukiyaki and shabu shabu. These tabe hodai restaurants are like “family restaurants”, so everyone can go and enjoy as much as they want in a casual atmosphere. These restaurants are particularly popular with families, members from clubs and sports teams, younger groups of people like students, and groups of long-time friends or co-workers who like to go out to eat together.

    Some hotpot meals can be high-class and expensive, such as sukiyaki and shabu shabu meals served in up-scale restaurants famous for their Japanese hospitality and décor, and in those served in deluxe restaurants at luxury hotels, where the servers are dressed in traditional Japanese clothes such as kimono. Eating beef in particular is still regarded as a luxury, especially the finer, well-marbled, and tender cuts of beef from Matsuzaka, Kobe, Yonezawa and other regions, so going to an up-scale restaurant to enjoy over-the-top service, ambiance, and high-quality ingredients certainly will be a special and memorable occasion.

    Below is a list of the most popular hotpot meals and their ingredients. There are many other variants and regional specialties too numerous to mention them all. Some of the ingredients used are common among all, and some are used specifically for one or only a few kinds of hotpots.

  • 02


    Eating with raw egg is totaly optional, but if you dine out, egg is usually available.

    Eating with raw egg is totaly optional, but if you dine out, egg is usually available.

    When it comes to Japanese food that has been well known around the world for decades, the number-one dish that comes to mind is sukiyaki. It is the grand-daddy of dishes that has been a favorite through the years, even before more recent and trendy dishes such as sushi, sashimi, and ramen started moving up on the world stage. And why wouldn’t sukiyaki be a long-time favorite? While there are exceptions, its ingredients are familiar and liked by people from practically every culture in the world. To start off, the main ingredient is beef, the meat that is the most favored one used in sukiyaki. Although chicken and pork also can be the main protein, beef is king, especially the more expensive cuts that are marbled and tender. When thinly sliced, tender cuts of beef are cooked as sukiyaki, they melt in your mouth. So, then, let’s give a rundown of the most often used ingredients, after beef, which are all plant/vegetable based.

    1) Negi (a type of onion with white stalks and green tops):
    These are sometimes called leeks for lack of a better translation, but they are not leeks. Leeks are quite fat and mild tasting. On the other hand, Japanese negi are much thinner and stronger tasting. They are not green onions or spring onions either, because the green tops are much too tough to be eaten raw. So whenever the green tops are used in cooking, they are usually put into stews and simmered dishes. For sukiyaki, only the white part of the stalks of the negi are used. They are cut diagonally in 5-7cm (2-3 inch) pieces.

    2) Grilled tofu:
    In sukiyaki, instead of using the white, natural-colored tofu as is, grilled tofu is used. When cooking sukiyaki at home, store-bought grilled tofu is almost always used. Broiled tofu is a standard block of tofu that has been grilled on all sides. It is cut into bit-size pieces and put in the sukiyaki pot until heated through.

    3) Shitake mushrooms:
    These are brown mushrooms with wide tops. Before being added to sukiyaki, a cross is cut into the top of each mushroom, in order to be more eye-appealing and enable the mushrooms to absorb the cooking sauce better.

    4) Hakusai (Chinese cabbage/napa cabbage):
    The cabbage leaves, which are softer, thinner, and more moist than regular cabbage, are cut into around 7cm. (3 inch) pieces before being added to sukiyaki. The harder, white parts that need to be cut smaller can be added into the pot too, but often times they are used on a later day in another dish.

    5) Shungiku (garland chrysanthemums):
    This is a green, leafy, edible vegetable that looks and smells like the leaves of flowering chrysanthemums, so hence its name. Since the stems are long, they sometimes are cut in half before being added to the pot, or they can put in the sukiyaki pot “as is”. For the most part, shungiku are almost always eaten in nabemono such as sukiyaki.

    6) Shirataki noodles:
    These noodles are made by mixing konjac flour* with water and then shaped into very thin, chewy, gelatinous noodles. Almost 100% of the time ready-made shirataki are used. They come in water-filled plastic packages. After being removed from the package, the noodles are rinsed and then cut into manageable lengths for eating.
    *Konjac is a type of starchy root vegetable similar in consistency to a potato; however, the noodles are clear and gelatinous.

    7) Enoki mushrooms:
    These very skinny mushrooms, which are sold in fat bunches, are broken into smaller bunches before being added to the pot.

    8) Flavoring the sukiyaki:
    Basically there are two types of cooking methods to flavor sukiyaki, depending on the region of the country. In the Kanto region (Tokyo and surrounding eastern region of Japan), a pre-mixed sauce called warishita is used. It is a combination of soy sauce, sake, mirin (sweet cooking sake) and sugar. Many cooks add a small amount of fish dashi too(a broth made from dried kelp and flakes of dried bonito). The warishita is added as necessary, in order to keep the ingredients submerged in liquid.

    Ingredients for sukiyaki. Everything except for enoki mushurooms are pictured above.

    Ingredients for sukiyaki. Everything except for enoki mushurooms are pictured above.

    In the Kansai region (Osaka and surrounding western region of Japan), the cooking method is slightly more complex, requiring cooks with good skills to pay attention so that the taste of the sauce remains consistent. Instead of premixing soy sauce, sake, and sugar together, each ingredient is added individually one at a time. Initially, sugar is sprinkled on the greased pot and left to caramelize. Once the sugar has caramelized, some of the beef is placed on top and some soy sauce is poured over the beef. This first bite of sweet, salty, caramelized sukiyaki is eaten with pleasure. After this step, more beef and other ingredients are added, and then soy sauce, sugar, and sake are added to give flavor. The trick, and here is the difficult part, is to make sure that just the right balance of soy sauce, sugar, and sake are added so the sauce doesn’t become too salty (soy sauce), too sweet (sugar),and too alcohol tasting (sake). After a while and after a few drinks, everyone becomes a chef and starts adding what they want in order to “balance” the flavor according to their own taste. This adding of soy sauce, sugar, and sake by each diner to adjust the taste typifies the classic saying, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

    Raw egg (do or don’t): It has become a custom when eating sukiyaki to dip the cooked ingredients into a small bowl of beaten, raw egg. Purists say that this raw egg coating makes the taste creamier while reducing the strong soy-sauce saltiness and sweetness of the sugar in the sauce. Dipping the sukiyaki into the raw egg is completely the decision of each, individual diner. If you “don’t”, then that is perfectly fine. There will be no pressure, no obligation, no feeling of guilt, and no faux pas in terms of bad manners if you don’t. Among Japanese people themselves, there are those who do and those who don’t.

  • 03


    Venturing on to the next hotpot meal, one can say that shabu shabu might be the next most popular hotpot meal, after sukiyaki. It is basically very thinly sliced pieces of beef* that are swished around in a boiling pot of lightly-seasoned broth. Since the beef is so thin, it cooks in seconds when being swished around in the boiling broth in the pot, while being held with chopsticks. The dish’s name, “shabu shabu” comes from the “swish swish” sound that is expressed as “shabu shabu” in Japanese. All or most of the ingredients used in sukiyaki are used in shabu shabu, except that regular tofu is used. For example, a few more vegetables can be cooked if wanted, such as carrots and daikon radish that are usually not added to sukiyaki. Except for the beef, all the other ingredients are placed in the pot and left to cook on their own, and then taken out and dipped in the sauces.

    There are basically two types of dipping sauces used for shabu shabu.

    One sauce is called ponzu, which is a mixture of soy sauce, rice-wine vinegar, acidic citrus juice (traditionally kabosu), and mirin. Sometimes a broth made from konbu kelp and bonito flakes (katsuobushi) is added. The ingredients of ponzu depend on the cook, manufacturer, or restaurant. When cooking shabu shabu at home, people almost always use ready-made ponzu, rather than making it from scratch.

    One more sauce is a sesame-seed sauce (goma dare) that uses sesame-seed paste as the main ingredient. It is a mixture of Japanese sesame paste, sugar, soy sauce, rice-wine vinegar, dashi soup stock, and salt. However, to get a truly delicious and satisfying taste, a simple sprinkling of ground chili pepper and a touch of finely grated garlic is all you need to add to the sauce to elevate it to an exquisite level, with a delightful and satisfying punch of flavor, which is perfect especially for the beef.

    While beef is the most popular protein used, thinly sliced pork, chicken, fish, and octopus can be used. However, only one of the proteins is chosen to be cooked at one meal, as they are not mixed and cooked in the same pot. When different protein are used, they may be called differentrly, such as crab (kani-shabu) sea bream (tai-shabu) and octopus (tako-shabu).

  • 04


    This is considered to be the “party nabe of winter”. During the cold season, when people invite family and friends to their homes or when they get together at an izakaya , yosenabe is almost always the nabe of choice for a fun time. The literal meaning of this nabemono is “collection pot”. In other words, many kinds of ingredients that might be on hand at home or bought before can be added according to personal tastes. In this nabemono, all sorts of protein are cooked together in a seafood-based, dashi broth. In this sense, yosenabe differs from sukiyaki and shabu shabu because in sukiyaki and shabu shabu only one protein is selected as the main ingredient and is never mixed with other kinds of proteins.

    The list of ingredients put in yosenabe is basically endless. However, in this regard, beef is normally not put in this nabemono. Starting with the protein, in addition to chicken pieces and sliced pork, a lot of seafood such as shrimp, squid, scallops, octopus, fish, clams, mussels, and crab can be added. Then all sorts of vegetables are added. They include the same ones put into sukiyaki and shabu shabu plus many more, such as carrots, daikon radish, onions, spinach, and various kinds of mushrooms (shiitake, shimeji, enoki). Other ingredients include tofu and konjac noodles, and also mochi rice cakes that are a heavier ingredient compared to the lighter vegetables. The dipping sauce used for yosenabe is usually ponzu dipping sauce.

    After everyone has eaten their fill of these ingredients and basically emptied the pot, the final ingredient added to the main meal is some kind of noodles. The most popular are udon and ramen, but kishimen (thin, flat noodles like linguini) are a good choice too. You should save room for this part of the meal because eating noodles cooked in the delicious, healthy, and flavorful, hot broth shouldn’t be missed.

  • 05


    This is a nabe that is traditionally eaten by sumo wrestlers. It’s basically the same as yosenabe with one big difference. In chankonabe chicken broth is used instead of the seafood-based dashi that is used in Yosenabe.

  • 06


    This is basically like yosenabe, except for two differences:

    (1) bite-size, bone-in chicken pieces and chicken meatballs flavored with negi and ginger are the only protein used, and

    (2) instead of boiling the ingredients in broth, like in yosenabe, the ingredients traditionally are boiled in water from the start. The name mizutaki literally means “water boil”. Nowadays, however, many high-end restaurants make their own, deep-flavored chicken broth that they use for the boiling liquid.

  • 07

    Ishikari nabe

    In this nabemono, salmon is the main ingredient. Its name is derived from the town, Ishikari, in Hokkaido where salmon are fished. As a nabe hotpot, it is basically the same concept as all the others, i.e., lots of ingredients are cooked in a pot at the table and everyone joins in. What differentiates ishikari nabe from other hotpots is the use of salmon as the exclusive protein. Also, the boiling broth contains miso bean paste, mirin, soy sauce, sake, some water, and ground sansho pepper spice. Into the pot with the salmon, other ingredients such as potatoes, corn, daikon radish, onion, cabbage, and other vegetables are cooked. Then the broth is topped with butter, a favorite and tasty ingredient that is made in Hokkaido and which is added to many dishes such as ramen, to give these dishes a taste of the local region.

  • 08

    Kimchee nabe

    The basis of kimchee nabe is yosenabe, with some differences. The cooking broth is chicken broth flavored with a little sesame oil, miso, garlic, ginger, and gochujang hot chili pepper paste. Nowadays, pre-made kimchee-nabe base is sold in stores, making it easy for anyone to cook this spicy, hearty, and warming nabemono. In addition, while any protein can be added, pork is the typical meat that is used. Also, garlic chives (Chinese chives) are a perfect addition, with their pungent, garlicy/oniony flavor and aroma. And of course, kimchee nabe wouldn’t be complete without the addition of kimchee itself.

  • 09

    Oden (Hotpot stew)

    Oden is a hotpot dish that is more or less like a stew, but the ingredients are not the usual ones found in stews made in the West, except for boiled potatoes. For the most part, the other ingredients in oden are hard-boiled eggs, boiled daikon radish, konjac squares, konbu (kelp), boiled octopus, boneless chicken meat, chicken wings, and shirataki noodles (thin, konjac noodles). However, last but not least are the main ingredients called “nerimono” (or more commonly “satsuma age”*). Nerimono (literally “kneaded things”) are translated as “fish cakes”, but they are not floury or “cakey” at all. They are rather chewy because they are made from a kneaded paste consisting of the raw flesh of white fish such as Alaska pollack that has been mashed and mixed with grated yamaimo (mountain yam), katakuriko (potato starch), mirin (sweet cooking sake), salt, and a little sugar.

    You may see this oden pot at convenience stores during the winter, where you can pick purchase the items you like.

    You may see this oden pot at convenience stores during the winter, where you can pick purchase the items you like.

    Once the paste is ready, it is deep fried into various shapes such as flat disks and cylinders. In addition, other ingredients such as carrots, onions, gobo (burdock root), mashed tofu, and hijiki seaweed can be added to the fish paste to make variations that are left up to the imaginations of the cooks. The fish cakes and all of the above-mentioned ingredients are added to a large pot of dashi fish broth and then left to slowly simmer for hours, letting the ingredients soak in the dashi until they are flavorful and delicious.

    People take out the ingredients that they want and put them in their own individual bowls, typically adding a small amount of hot mustard before eating. Oden is most often considered to be a drinking snack, since it is a favorite served at izakaya drinking/dining bars and yakitori restaurants. Nevertheless, it makes for a very hearty, warming, and filling dinner on its own, served with rice and pickles.

    *Satsuma age is the name that the fish cakes are known as in the Kanto region (Tokyo and northeast region of Japan). In the Kansai region (Osaka and Shikoku regions), satsuma age surprisingly are called “tempura”. And in the Satsuma region itself (namely the Kagoshima area), they are simply called “tsukeage”, possibly meaning “put in and deep fried”.

  • 10


    This is another nabemono, with a different twist on the ingredients. Instead of the standard meat and seafood that is added into other nabe meals, in motsunabe innards (offal) of pork, beef, or chicken are used instead in this hotpot that is a specialty of Fukuoka. For example, pork intestines, tripe, liver, and heart are cooked together. The base chicken broth contains garlic, ginger, chili flakes, soy sauce, mirin, soy sauce, miso, and water.

    Besides the traditional nabemono vegetables, bean sprouts and garlic chives are usually added. For eaters who enjoy innards, this has to be one of the best choices of dishes for you to enjoy an authentic taste of Japan that is neither well known nor popular among visitors from overseas.

  • 11

    Hotplate-cooked foods

    Hotplates or griddles are used to cook some of the most favorite foods in Japan, which are not so well known outside of Japan.

  • 12


    The first one described here is okonomiyaki, which is basically a savory pancake. It is a local specialty of Osaka, which is famous for this dish. It is usually served as the main dish at lunch or dinner. Okonomiyaki when translated means “griddle what you like”. It is basically a batter of flour, egg, and water. However, for truly Osaka style okonomiyaki, grated mountain yam (yamaimo) also is added to the batter to make the finished pancake light, fluffy, and soft. Then, either one, or a couple, or several ingredients are added to the batter, as you like. Chopped cabbage is always an ingredient in okonomiyaki. The other ingredients can be thinly sliced pork, shrimp, squid, octopus, mushrooms, tempura crumbs, green onions, kimchee, and cheese, which are added on their own or in combinations such as shrimp and mushrooms; or sliced pork and cheese; or squid, green onions, and tempura crumbs. The whole mixture is stirred together and spread out on a hotplate and cooked. The okonomiyaki is flipped over one time and left to finish cooking. Once cooked, toppings are spread on top, such as special okonomiyaki sauce that is a thick, slightly sweet, Japanese-style Worcestershire sauce. Other toppings are seaweed flakes, bonito flakes, red-pickled ginger, and mayonnaise. When eating okonomiyaki, chopsticks are used, but first the pancake is cut into bite-size pieces, traditionally with a metal spatula.

    Okonomiyaki can be easily cooked at home with only a frying pan, although many households use electric hotplates that are placed on the dining table. After the hotplate is ready, anyone who wants, can start to cook their own okonomiyaki. When eating at restaurants, sometimes you can have the staff cook okonomiyaki in the kitchen and bring it to your table, or you can cook it yourself at the table that has built-in hotplates in the middle. In some cases, restaurants don’t have tables with hotplates and some restaurants aren’t equipped to cook it for you. For the most enjoyable okonomiyaki meal; however, it’s always a lot more fun when you can cook it yourself, with everyone at the table wanting to play the role of chef.

  • 13

    Modern yaki

    This is a “new style” of okonomiyaki, hence the name “modern”. Basically, it is a layered okonomiyaki that is said to have originated in either Osaka or Kobe. (The true birthplace is not clear.) Nevertheless, it is a two-layer okonomiyaki consisting of a traditional okonomiyaki pancake as one layer. It is stacked on a bed of griddle-fried noodles that form the other layer. For the pancake, all of the ingredients are added to the batter and they are mixed together before being cooked. After the pancake is cooked, it is placed on the bed of noodles and then topped with the standard items such as okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, and seaweed and bonito flakes.

  • 14

    Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki

    Hiroshima is proud of its own style of okonomiyaki that raises modern yaki to another level, because it consists of three, round layers, which are hotplate-fried noodles, okonomiyaki pancake, and lightly beaten and fried eggs. The ingredients themselves are very similar to those in the Osaka style; however, they are cooked and arranged differently. The cabbage added to Hiroshima style okonomiyaki might be more finely chopped than that put in Osaka okonomiyaki and modern yaki, depending on the household and restaurant. One big difference is the pancake. The ingredients are not added to the batter and stirred together.

    To make Hiroshima yaki, first a circle of plain batter is placed on the hotplate, and then chopped cabbage, bean sprouts, tempura crumbs, green onions, and thinly sliced pork are placed on top in that order. Next to the pancake, the eggs are cracked onto the hotplate and slightly stirred into a circle and fried. Next to the eggs, the noodles are placed on the hotplate and stir-fried. The pancake is flipped over once so that the pork cooks directly on the hotplate so it can brown and become a little crispy. Once the pancake has cooked, it is placed on top of the noodles, and then the eggs are placed on top of the pancake to form a delicious, layered okonomiyaki that is finished by being topped with seaweed flakes and Otafuku* okonomiyaki sauce mixed with mayonnaise, in which hot mustard sometimes is added too. In most cases, Hiroshima-style yaki is almost always cooked by restaurant staff because of the higher level of cooking technique and larger space needed to cook and stack each layer precisely.

    *Otakufuku sauce is one brand of okonomiyaki sauce, the brand that Hiroshima citizens say "must" be used to create a truly authentic Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Rather than using anchovies and tamarind like in the British Worcestershire sauce, Otafuku uses dates and raisins to create a milder, sweeter flavor. Also, other ingredients such as sugar, white vinegar, molasses, salt, tomato paste, apple, and carrot are used to make the sauce.

  • 15


    Takoyaki are golf-ball-size fritters cooked in special takoyaki griddles that enable them to be turned and spun and formed into round balls. They are made from a batter in which a piece of boiled octopus* (tako) is placed in the middle. Once cooked, they are topped with the same ingredients used to top okonomiyaki.

    Takoyaki is famous in Osaka, or rather, it might be better to say that Osaka is famous for takoyaki, which is its most famous local food and culinary symbol of the city. While takoyaki is mostly eaten as an afternoon tea-time snack or as a drinking “companion”, some households in Osaka eat takoyaki for dinner. Whether Osaka-born residents eat takoyaki for dinner or as a snack, it would be hard to find any Osaka household that does not have an especially designed griddle made exclusively for cooking takoyaki.

    * While octopus is the traditional ingredient put inside takoyaki, other items such as green onion, red pickled ginger, tempura crumbs (tenkasu), cheese, sausage pieces, squid, and others can be used.

  • 16


    Akashiyaki, which originated in the city of Akashiya in Hyogo Prefecture next to Osaka, is a derivative of takoyaki, as it also includes a piece of octopus in the middle. There are two differences between takoyaki and akashiyaki. One difference is the addition of more eggs in the akashiyaki batter. This gives the cooked fritters a much softer and airy texture, and an eggy taste when compared to takoyaki. The other difference is the way it is eaten. Instead of being topped with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, and seaweed flakes, Akashiyaki is dipped into a lightly salted, warm, bonito-flake broth that can contain a few slices of green onion, depending on the store. While Akashiyaki is not as common as takoyaki and not as easy to make, it is certainly worth looking for a place that serves it. You will definitely enjoy its refined, elegant, and light taste, which shouldn’t be missed while in Japan.

  • 17


    Monjayaki is a native food of Tokyo, which is basically a type of okonomiyaki made with a very runny batter due to the greater amount of dashi or water that is added to the monjayaki batter. Another difference between okonomiyaki and monjayaki is the addition of soy sauce and Japanese Worcestershire sauce (tonkatsu sauce) to the monjayaki batter. The mixture, unlike that of okonomiyaki, has lots of small chopped bits and the batter is colored brown from the soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. In order to keep the runny/watery batter from dripping from the hotplate, diners using small, metal spatulas must constantly keep pushing the batter to the center of the hotplate until the monjayaki finally begins to solidify and finish cooking.

    Honestly speaking, when the brownish-colored batter with bits and pieces of cabbage, onions, red-pickled ginger, and the rest has been thoroughly stirred and spread on the hotplate, it has a very unappetizing look. Unfortunately, it resembles something that people would rather not eat, so don’t lose your appetite when you make it. Nevertheless, once cooked, the edges become crispy and that adds a nice taste. Most monjayaki restaurants have okonomiyaki on the menu, while okonomiyaki restaurants rarely have monjayaki.

    Written by Ronald Pompeo

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