3 Reasons Why You Should Have a Donabe
by J. Michael Beza
I love eating and I love trying new restaurants, but occasionally here on When It’s Hot, I’ll bring things back to the kitchen. The kitchen is where a food lover can learn some of his/her biggest insights into what they like, or better yet, what they didn’t know they liked. We live in a time unbound by the pages of costly cookbooks. If you’re a complete beginner and you’ve got the itch for some homemade food, you’re one YouTube deep dive or recipe google search away from becoming your family’s favorite restaurant.
They say a craftsman is only as good as his/her tools, and nowhere in the home is that more relevant than in the kitchen. The amount that you invest into your kitchen determines what you will get out of it. Everybody’s kitchen, like a wardrobe or an Instagram profile, is an opportunity for you to express yourself as an individual and create your own unique cooking, dining, and hosting experience.
In Kitchen Talk, I’ll be going over some of the culinary cornerstones that I think communicate who I am as a home cook, and will make the case for why you should consider adding them to your arsenal. Today’s topic is the donabe (pronounced doe-nAH-bay) and how this clay pot can take your boring weeknight dinners from bleak to mystique. If you think I’m crazy, just ask our Lord and Flaviour Dave Chang! Trust me, donabe are poised to become a hot new trend in millennial homes everywhere, so sit back, relax, and let me tell you the three reasons why you should be buying donabe stock today.
1. Heat from the Earth
Clay pot cooking. You just shuddered at how hipster that sounded right? Don’t worry, I’m not judging you, I sympathize. My eyes also tend to roll into the back of my head when I hear terms like “foam,” “sous-vide,” or “deconstructed.” When I’m at home, I want to make food that’s hearty, simple and delicious, and donabe are almost the exact epitome of that ethos.
What makes something hearty? The most fundamental answer I can give is that hearty food is substantial and nutritious. Donabe can deliver these qualities in spades thanks to the type of cooking these vessels are best suited for. Think about the stews that are cooked low and slow, or meat and bean chilis that are sitting on the stovetop all day undergoing alchemic reactions to produce something delicious and comforting. Well, look no further than the donabe.
The difference between these pots and something like a Dutch oven, are all in how they harness heat to cook the food. Metal is a fantastic conductor, but it also deflects and releases the heat relatively quickly. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and frankly cast-iron is on the higher end of head retention; however, the physical properties of earthen clay, especially the high-quality clay that goes into the construction of donabe, allows for best-in-class heat retention. Though it must be done gradually, once a donabe is full of heat and rolling, the food inside of it is cooked with something akin to infrared heat, allowing the ingredients cook through gently and maintain their essences and flavors more effectively.
Allow me to qualify my claims of heat retention with a donabe anecdote of my own. I’m relatively new to the donabe game, myself, having just started using mine in earnest this past winter. My partner and I decided it was a good night for seafood and vegetable hot pot, so we threw in some dashi stock and piled on the ingredients and put the donabe on the stove. We brought the heat up slowly, as is recommended so as not to risk damaging the donabe, but got a little bit impatient because we were starving. We turned the heat up to a balmy medium high and walked away assuming it was still going to take a while. Well, it did take more time than we assumed it would, but once it started boiling, it got to a frightfully violent bubbling and ended up boiling over the sides and into our stovetop. We turned the fire off immediately and removed the lid to let it cool down faster, as anyone would do. Turns out, donabe don’t stop boiling right away. It kept going for a good 20 seconds! We couldn’t even lift it and move it to a cooler spot in the kitchen because it was THAT ripping hot.
I don’t need to tell you that I won’t be letting my donabe boil over that carelessly anymore, but I can tell you confidently that these things pack a serious punch, and when I’m cooking something that needs tons of heat to breakdown what’s inside and take it to uncharted territories of flavor-land, the donabe gets the job done. And for the record, that hotpot we had that night was incredible, and hopefully if I ever get around to recipes on this blog, I’ll share it with all of you.
2. Versatility and Longevity
The second beauty of donabe is that you can do so much with them and they can last you a long time. But lots of pots can do lots of different things, right? A standard 2 or 4 qt. pan or pot can fulfil a similar function and even outdo a donabe in a couple of tasks, most notably high heat frying or sauteing. The principal difference here is that for the tasks a donabe is useful for, it exceeds almost any other tool in quality.
Let’s run down the list:
- Hotpot – Tired of going to those expensive shabu restaurants that are finding more excuses to jack up the prices by implementing gimmicky tabletop heating technology? Me too. With a donabe you’ve got the option of just heating up your dish on the stove and setting it down on a trivet on the dining table, or you can just invest in a tabletop propane stove for the same price you were going to spend on the shabu restaurant in the first place. No hotpot will ever taste better, I promise you, especially because you won’t be eating it out of a thin metal shabu bowl.
- Rice – Everybody loves rice, and if you’re one of those people who doesn’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for an electric rice cooker, get a donabe instead. Think about some of the most delicious rice dishes around Asia like biryani, bibimbap, or bo zai fan. They’re all cooked in clay pots! That infrared heat that we talked about earlier produces delicate and fluffy rice unlike anything you’ve tasted.
- Braising – The ability for the donabe to keep its contents nice, juicy, and flavorful are the desirable outcomes of braised meats and vedge. Admittedly, a Dutch oven might be a more utilitarian tool for this because you can sear the crap out of your protein in the same pan before adding the liquids and sticking it all in the oven. With the donabe, you’re better off browning your meats in another pan so as not to put so much stress on the clay, but if you do opt for the donabe braise, don’t forget to deglaze that pan you used and throw in all that sweet, sweet fond.
You get the picture, the donabe does lots of useful stuff in the kitchen. It is by no means a dreaded “uni-tasker” (shoutouts to Alton Brown), and like a good Dutch oven or cast-iron skillet, the donabe takes on a character of its own as it ages. The more you use it, the more likely it’s going to get its fair share of bruises and blemishes along the way. Think of them as chapters in your home culinary journey.
Depending on where you buy the donabe, too, there’s a chance you’ll get something with a unique design—something that will add a lot of personality to your kitchen. It isn’t like buying a generic pot from Le Creuset that everyone and their mother has, a lot of donabe producers put a lot of thought and artistic touch into the design of their products. Somewhere down the line, maybe two or three decades after buying it, the donabe might finally give out and crack, and be rendered unusable as a culinary tool. It is made of clay after all. But even if it doesn’t last long enough to make it to the next generation, what a history you’ll have made with such a beautiful pot. When it’s time for it to retire from the stovetop, repurpose it with some good fertilizer and an herb or vegetable of your choice. It’s the circle of life.
3. Family Style Eating
Speaking of history, no stronger memories involving food are made without sharing meals with the people you love. That might be the cheesiest sentiment I’ve written on this blog to date, but hey, it’s a cliché for a reason. I mentioned earlier how the donabe is conducive to hotpot cooking. Well, this is the area where I believe you can get the most mileage out of it.
When my wife and I bought our donabe, we had one primary objective in mind: buying something that would let us enjoy meals at the table with guests, family, or future children. In Japan, one of the most beautiful things you can see is a family tucking into a kotatsu on a cold winter night, with a hot, simmering donabe filled with vegetables like napa cabbage, green onions and carrots, fish and/or meatballs, and bowls of fresh cooked rice beside them. Everybody gives their blessing for the food, and starts picking their favorite bits from the pot, making sure to cool them down before dipping into a flavorful sauce like ponzu.
When the contents of the donabe are all but consumed, and everybody has been warmed from stomach to soul by the incomparable gift of freshly cooked soup, the mother might add some leftover rice into the pot with an egg or two and simmer it all together to make a satisfying and flavorful rice porridge so that each person may enjoy every last drop of what was originally cooked—nothing wasted.
If you took anything positive away from the pandemic, I hope that it was the realization of how valuable your time with loved ones is. For those of you with families at home, maybe you realized how much being in the same house together has strengthened your bonds. For all of us who haven’t been able to see close friends or elderly relatives for months, you’ve probably seen how taken for granted it really was. Life is fragile and normalcy is fleeting, so hold on to what you hold dear before you can’t hold on any longer. Make those memories around the table while you can and commit to making countless more in the future.
It’s incredibly hard not to be romantic about food sometimes, and evoking nostalgia can be a slippery slope. In this case, though, we can let ourselves slide into that lazy river of wistfulness. The donabe makes it worth it.