A donabe is a Japanese cooking vessel made of clay — do means “clay,” nabe means “pot.” But if you talk to Naoko Takei Moore, it’s also a way of thinking about cooking, a way of finding joy in the day-to-day of the kitchen. Takei Moore, who was born in Yokohama and grew up in Tokyo, remembers the communal-style donabe at the center of her family’s dining table year round, and how it drew everyone toward it for the simmering dish known as a nabe, or hot pot. “The most common style when I was growing up was yosenabe, which means anything goes,” she said. Some nights, that meant a pot of fish and vegetables in a miso broth, or a clean-out-the-fridge pot of scraps simmered in dashi. Some nights it was tiny handmade meatballs seasoned with white miso and ginger, or big wobbly cuts of soft tofu with whatever vegetables looked good. “I loved it, but didn’t think it was anything special,” she said.
That changed after Takei Moore immigrated to Los Angeles, where she worked in the music industry. On a visit home, Takei Moore tasted rice cooked in a traditional donabe again and saw it all differently. “I had a moment of crazy happiness,” she said. “I already knew how rice cooked in a donabe could taste wonderful, but this was just so striking.” The pot seemed almost magical to her, though she knew exactly how it worked — unglazed clay, which is porous, takes time to build up heat, and the donabe’s thick walls distribute that heat gently, then cools down slowly. Like the clay pots of so many other cuisines, the pot didn’t just distribute heat differently from stainless steel and cast iron; it also imparted flavor — a certain level of sweetness, richness and possibly even some minerality from the clay itself.
“Some people want to feel happiness that’s too big,” Takei Moore said. “But for me, every day, I just look for something small.” It can be as small as cooking something delicious for herself, or even teaching someone else to cook it. Back in Los Angeles, she started to teach Japanese-cooking classes out of her home, showing people how to use a donabe, how to steam and braise with it and how to build one-pot meals in layers. She explained to each student how the clay from Japan’s Iga region was a lake bed about four million years ago, and how that clay was now used by ceramists to make the donabe she sold. Online, Takei Moore even started to go by the name Mrs. Donabe.
My only donabe is an old online purchase — nothing fancy — chipped and singed and still completely reliable.
As demand for the pots and other Japanese cookware in Los Angeles grew, Takei Moore opened a small shop called Toiro in West Hollywood, full of clay bowls and many different styles of donabe — some brushed with stripes, some with curved lids that doubled as serving platters. For anyone not used to cooking with clay, a row of beautiful and delicate donabe can be intimidating. As the donabe is used, over and over, it gets darker and the inside fills with fine crackles, which can also make newcomers to clay cooking nervous. “The patina grows,” Takei Moore said, referring to the changes in the surface as the pot ages. “And that’s part of the donabe growing with you.” She doesn’t think chips or stains are anything to worry about. “If it still looks brand-new after a year, then you get embarrassed — it means you’re not cooking with it!”
Takei Moore cooks with a donable daily, and even wrote a cookbook titled “Donabe” in 2015. She regularly shares new nabe recipes on her website. One of my favorites is her tsukune miso nabe, a chicken-meatball hot pot made with a mix of mushrooms, big pieces of delicate fresh tofu and tender greens, added just at the end so they wilt into the seasoned dashi. The meatballs, mixed with miso and grated raw ginger, come together in just a few minutes. And as the meatballs simmer in the dashi, they complicate it and infuse it with even more flavor. Although the recipe calls for dashi, Takei Moore says you can get away with just soaking a piece of kombu in water because the meatballs and mushrooms release so much of themselves as they cook, making the dish richer and richer as it simmers. If you don’t have a donabe, you could make it in another kind of wide, heavy-bottomed pot. Or, you could try getting an inexpensive donabe to see how you like it.
Though high-end handmade donabe can be expensive, they aren’t the only kind. My only donabe is an old online purchase — nothing fancy — chipped and singed and still completely reliable for that meatball nabe with scoops of soft tofu and a tangle of pea shoots on a rainy spring night. And as Takei Moore reminded me, earthen pots shouldn’t be set aside on a high shelf just for display, or only reserved for special occasions. “I come from donabe culture,” she said. “And over there, the donabe is really for everybody, and for every day.”