Curry nabe is combination of two of Japan’s great comfort foods: curry-rice (karê raisu, カレーライス) and nabe (鍋). Curry-rice is a Japanized version of Indian curries via Britain: served with rice, this dish is a thick, brown sauce, more sweet than spicy, combined with onions, carrots, potatoes, and chicken or beef, which are sauteed before boiling in the sauce. If mac ‘n’ cheese and spaghetti are the epitome of basic American home cooking, curry-rice tops Japan’s list.
Most curry roux in Japan contain meat extracts (beef, pork, or fish are the most common). I am found of Sokensha‘s vegan* curry “flake type” roux (植物素材の本格カレー), which is sold in health-food stores like Noppo-kun but can also be ordered online. I like the “spicy” one (辛口), even though it’s not all that spicy. This “Curry for Vegetarians” by Sakurai is also vegan, though I haven’t tried it. (Edit: Haiku Girl recommends S&B’s exported Torokeru (とろける) curry roux blocks, but the domestic varieties sold in Japan appear to contain chicken or beef bouillon [ブイヨン].)
Then, of course, is the staple of Japanese winter cuisine: nabe, from nabemono, which refers to foods cooked in a (clay) pot. Nabe, like curry-rice, is completely adaptable to taste: use whatever tofu, vegetables, and/or meat you like and boil them in a broth of your choice. It’s like non-committal soup, and it’s great for casual dinner parties. You can purchase broth in a variety of flavors from soymilk to kimchi at any grocery store, but I prefer to make my own, and it’s really quite simple. (How did you guess?)
I make nabe about once a week in the winter, and with our 3-4-person earthenware donabe (土鍋) pot, we can get four servings out of one meal. Any homegoods store, most larger supermarkets, and Amazon.co.jp sell donabe, which are clay pots with handles and lids that are meant to sit on top of a gas stove.** The box will indicate the serving size of the pot. My husband and I own the Pearl Metal Company’s #8 donabe, which serves 3-4 people; smaller sizes, like the #7, serve fewer. If you live alone, you could get a 2-3 person donabe, though you can certainly use a bigger donabe or a large pot and reduce the amount of ingredients. Normally, a donabe runs about 2000-4000 yen, but since the pattern on ours was discontinued and it was the end of season, we got it for about 1000 yen.
For 4 servings, I generally use ~550 mL of liquid and as many vegetables and tofu as I can fit in the pot. Even though it doesn’t look like a lot of liquid, the vegetables will displace the liquid, and you’ll cover the pot with the lid at the end of cooking, so the vegetables on the top will steam.
The most simple broth starts with dashi. I tend to use 500 mL of water with 50 mL of dashi stock, but most store brands contain bonito or other seafood. For vegetarian stock, you can look for kombu- or mushroom-based stocks, or, even easier, make your own by soaking dried shiitake and dried kombu, available in the dried foods section of the grocery store, in water overnight in the fridge (see Just Hungry for details). Seriously, it’s as easy as that. If you are using homemade dashi, use 550 mL of that.
About the Ingredients
What and how much of any given ingredient you use is completely up to you as long as it fits in the pot and tastes good. I like to use shirataki noodles, firm momen tofu, carrot, satsumaimo sweet potato, eringi or mini eringi mushrooms, lotus root, and kabocha. Of course, you can also use
- raw udon (nama udon, 生うどん) or soba noodles (nama soba, 生そば), especially boiled in leftover broth after the vegetables are gone;
- gobô (ごぼう, burdock root), scrubbed clean and peeled;
- any kind of mushrooms: shiitake (dried or fresh, シイタケ), enoki (エノキ), or maitake (マイタケ);
- potatoes (jagaimo, ジャガイモ);
- any kind of tofu: silken (kinugoshi dôfu, 絹ごし), nabe dôfu (鍋豆腐), pressed (katatôfu, 堅豆腐), fried (atsu âge, 厚揚げ), or grilled (yakidôfu, 焼き豆腐) —nabe, grilled, and fried hold their shape best, and fried tofu will need to be rinsed in hot water to get the oil off;
- kohlrabi (kôrabi, コーラビ)
- mochi (もち, 餅);
- cabbage (kyabetsu, キャベツ);
- turnips (kabu, かぶ);
- daikon radish (daikon, 大根);
or whatever you think might suit the flavor. I’ve included my favorites for the curry broth in the recipe, but feel free to swap in your favorites. Do try the satsumaimo and lotus root if you have the chance–they are my favorite vegetables to have in curry-rice or curry nabe!
- Add broth to pot and place pot to heat uncovered over a medium-low flame.
- Drain the shirataki in a colander and rinse well in warm water. Add to pot.
- Drain and cube the tofu. (No need to press out the liquid.) Add to pot.
- Add the prepared kabocha, carrot, lotus root, and mushrooms.
- Add the satsumaimo and negi.
- Bring the liquid to a low boil and simmer. When the hardest ingredients have softened a bit, stir in the roux with the chopsticks so it dissolves; be careful not to break up the tofu too much.
- Turn the heat down to low and simmer for another 5-10 minutes, until the curry roux has thickened a little (it will still be soupy) and the vegetables are done to your liking.
- Serve hot. Use a spoon or ladle-spoon instead of chopsticks to get the broth with the vegetables.
* Vegan: No animal products (dobtsusei genryo hushiyo, 動物性原料不使用)
** For those lacking gas stoves in Japan, a tabletop gas burner (kasetto konro, カセットコンロ) that uses a gas cannister (kasette bombe, カセットボンベ), is an easy-to-find addition to your home.
*** Do not use curry powder (kareê kona, カレー粉). See notes above for information on vegetarian roux.