• Tomohiro Akutsu with a donabe (Japanese clay pot), which can be used to cook many warming, communal dishes. (Tomohiro Akutsu)Source: Tomohiro Akutsu
Bringing people together to share food, donabe-style, might be the warmest way to combat isolation blues.
Seraphina Seow

25 Jun 2020 - 12:08 PM  UPDATED 25 Jun 2020 - 12:08 PM

“There is a phrase we say in Japan: kazoku danran. It means family harmony, sitting happily in a family circle. This is what donabe makes me think of,” says Tomohiro Akutsu, who runs Japanese Cuisine Classes on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland.

Donabe (‘clay pot’) is a centuries-old cooking vessel from Japan. It's used to prepare nabe (hot pot), zosui (Japanese rice soup), oden (Japanese stew), and mixed rice.

The vessel itself has a fascinating history. Naoko Takei Moore, a donabe cooking expert, tells SBS Food that the most famous region for this clay pot style is Iga in Japan's Mie prefecture. Many moons ago, the region used to be the bed of Lake Biwa, so its clay contains naturally occurring microorganisms. “Once you fire it, the microorganisms create the porous body and that makes the donabe really durable and also have this ability of heat retention – so it's really efficient for cooking,” says Moore.

Donabe is also an embodiment of Japan’s unique perspective of beauty, called wabi-sabi. “Wabi-sabi is where we find that perfection is not interesting and instead imperfection is embraced,” says Moore. “The more you use the donabe, it gets darker, the patina develops, it chips here and there, and that’s part of the character, too, and it feels like it has a personal touch to it.”

While you might want to own a donabe now after hearing that, we don't need one to follow Moore’s quarantine donabe recipes on Instagram. Akutsu suggests a casserole pot, cast-iron pot, or saucepan, and if you currently own a portable gas stove, place this on your table and cook the meal there. Otherwise, chef Chase Kojima from Sydney's Sokyo suggests cooking on the kitchen stove or with a slow cooker on a low temperature and bringing the still-warm vessels to the dining table.

When making the soup base, Kojima recommends avoiding stock in long-life cartons because of its high sodium load. “Nabe is always reducing – so it’ll be too salty, and you can get so much flavour from the stuff you’re going to throw in. So I'd get watery vegetables like napa cabbage, carrots, zucchini, or chicken thigh with the bones.”

To this, Kojima may add a dash of soy sauce, but does not overseason because the flavours deepen as nabe cooks. Handmade chicken, pork or tofu mince balls and more vegetables are tossed in and replenished throughout the meal. Most vegetables work, but Kojima advises against overpowering ones like capsicum, celery, and large amounts of onion. For a dipping sauce, choose ponzu (a Japanese citrus-based sauce) or sesame paste.

“In Japanese culture, we don't have rice on the side when eating nabe, because we want that long slow meal,” Kojima explains. “We put the rice in at the end with the flavourful liquid, add some beaten eggs and close the lid for a minute and have it like that. We kind of have it in courses: we start off eating the vegies, then meat and vegies, and at the end you have the delicious zosui.”

“There is a phrase we say in Japan: kazoku danran. It means family harmony, sitting happily in a family circle. This is what donabe makes me think of.”

“When you’re cooking for your family, it usually takes you one, two to three hours to prep your meal then you have your meal and it’s typically done in 20 to 30 minutes, but with donabe you sit at the table and start cooking then, and the whole start to finish can be hours. I remember me and my dad would be eating for hours, there’s a lot of talking when you’re eating for that long, it just keeps the family close,” says Kojima.

For this reason, Akutsu wishes that people would cook donabe meals during this isolating time. “Because everybody is stuck at home, the energy is quite negative. But if you eat together at the table and talk, it makes the spirit better.”


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Tomohiro Akutsu's nikudango nabe (pork mince and vegetable hot pot)


  • 500 g pork mince
  • 2 tbsp grated ginger
  • 2 tbsp grated garlic
  • 3 tbsp sesame oil
  • 3 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 3 tbsp spring onions, chopped
  • 100-150 g mushrooms (try including shiitake or enoki mushrooms if they're available)
  • 1 bunch bok choy, chopped in quarters (see note)
  • 200 g sliced pumpkin
  • 1 bunch broccolini, cut in half
  • 3 potatoes, cut into 1cm-thick slices
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (you can also use 2 cups boiling water mixed with dashi powder or 2 cups boiling water mixed with 4 tbsp konbu tsuyu)
  • Ponzu sauce, optional

1. In a bowl, combine pork mince, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, oyster sauce and spring onions. Mix together evenly until the mince becomes sticky. Form the mixture into small meatballs using the two spoons method.
2. Pour boiling water into a pot, until it's half full. Add the stock to the pot and mix. Adjust stock and seasoning to taste.
3. Begin with placing the vegies into the pot, placing hard vegies first (i.e. potatoes, root vegies), then add about ½ of your pork mince balls (the remaining pork mince balls are added as you eat).
4. Put the lid on the pot. Turn up the heat until the pot is boiling, then down to medium heat.
5. After 5–10 minutes of cooking time, divide the ingredients into three bowls and serve. Serve the ponzu in small individual bowls, if using. To cook the remaining meatballs, add them to the broth and let the broth boil for 5-10 minutes before serving.

• Note You can substitute any of the vegetables above with any similar produce available in your fridge.

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