By Peter Davis, UIUC Junior in Mechanical Engineering

One of the best ways to gain an appreciation for a culture is over a delicious meal. Going a step further, I have found that this appreciation blossoms tenfold when you learn to prepare traditional meals yourself. While I always enjoyed treating myself to classics such as sushi, ramen, and bento boxes, I never considered learning about Japanese cuisine enough to prepare my own meals. This all changed, however, when I discovered donabe.

The word donabe (doh–NAH –beh) is very simple, literally translating to ‘clay pot’ (do = clay, nabe = pot). Donabe has incredible properties of heat retention thanks to its porous clay, and it visually presents a rustic beauty. This traditional piece of cookware has been popular since the seventeenth century for shared meals. To this day, the expression nabe o kakomu – ‘gathered around a pot’ – is used to describe the communal experience shared over these nabe meals.

By pure chance, I stumbled upon an affordable donabe while exploring the aisles of Mitsuwa Marketplace. Like most things in this Japanese supermarket, I was completely oblivious as to what it was or how to use it. Nevertheless, something compelled me to buy it – maybe I thought it might be fun for a one-time thrill.

With these humble beginnings, I decided to start as simple as possible: cooking rice. Following online instructions, I heated the donabe and watched as steam satisfyingly puffed out the deliberate circular vent, filling the room with the sweet starchy aroma. Once this steam indicated that rice was boiling, I made sure to turn off the flame, letting the retained heat of the donabe do the cooking. To my shock, it turned out to be some of the best rice I had ever eaten. This was my first lesson in Japanese cooking – that simple ingredients shine through beautifully when cultivated correctly.

Still, I was eager to explore the flavor possibilities further. Looking through donabe recipes, I saw the familiar flavorings of soy sauce, miso, and sake - but one unfamiliar word appeared in every recipe: dashi. This crucial ingredient turns out to be the secret to any good Japanese meal. Simply put, dashi is the foundational stock for Japanese dishes. Whereas western cooking is based on vegetable and meat stocks, Japanese dashi comes mainly from fish and mushrooms. To my surprise, however, dashi is actually incredibly easy to make! Making traditional katsuo dashi only requires steeping dried ingredients in water – taking about as much time as brewing a cup of tea. Shiitake dashi actually requires no cooking at all – you just put the dried mushrooms in water overnight. Simple ingredients, simple preparation, but unbelievable flavor.

Stocked with my arsenal of dashi, I was ready for some real nabe cooking. Using what I learned both making rice and dashi, I experimented with a delicious yet simple recipe for salmon hijiki rice.

Still, my appetite for Japanese cooking was only growing. I began to get more adventurous, finding ingredients like kamaboko (fish cake), gobo (burdock root), and swarths of mushrooms (maitake, shimeji, enoki). I came across a recipe for a udon noodle hot pot which used many of my favorite ingredients, and I can honestly say this turned out to be the best homemade meal I have ever prepared. Really, I could not have predicted how beautifully homemade dashi combines with miso and shiitake.

Even after coming to love all of these crazy meals, I am grateful I took it slow in the beginning; it gave me the opportunity to appreciate the unique qualities of each individual ingredient. Moreover, I am grateful for all the tidbits of Japanese culture I have picked up on this culinary journey, as each recipe comes with a side of regional and historical knowledge. I initially expected my donabe to be a one-time novelty, but it now makes its way onto my stovetop multiple times each week, whether it be for rice or a whole hot pot dinner. Really, if you want to learn more about Japan, I’d say the dinner table is a great place to start!

Dashi ingredients!