A Quick Guide to ‘Donabe’, the Japanese Traditional Earth Cookware

The interest in the Japanese aesthetics is increasing worldwide, and it’s no longer rare, for example, to see Japanese items in Western kitchens anymore. Today I’d like to introduce you to a kitchenware item that has yet to become popular outside of Japan: the donabe, or Japanese clay pot.

2019-06-20   Food & Drinks, Souvenirs,

Nabe, the most convivial Japanese meal

Nabe are very popular at parties

Have you ever heard of nabe or nabemono? It’s the name under which comes a variety of Japanese hot pot dishes. Often eaten during winter, they are considered the most convivial of dishes: they are cooked and kept warm at the center of the table on a portable stove, and the guests take the ingredients they like from the pot.

The most famous nabemono worldwide are certainly shabu-shabu and sukiyaki, but there are many more such as chankonabe (originally eaten by Sumo wrestlers), or motsunabe (including pork offal). Of course there are also many regional versions of nabe to enjoy when you are travelling in Japan!

Donabe, the clay pot and its benefits for cooking

You can cook various things in a donabe (Source: Nagatani-en official website)

The pots, nabe in Japanese, can be made of thick cast iron, then called tetsunabe, or of clay, then called donabe (literally ‘clay pot’).

The main advantage of the donabe is that it keeps the food warm even after being taken off the fire. Of course you can use it to cook the traditional nabe dishes, but you can also use it to cook a variety of Asian and Western dishes: soups, stews, steamed dishes, rice… With it, you can easily give food (especially rice) a delicious texture that can’t be imitated by modern cookers. The slow cooking in the clay pot helps the ingredients release the best of their aromas, which are kept even when cold. So even when you don’t use it for parties, it’s a very useful item to have in the kitchen!

If you run out of ideas, I recommend a great book by Naoko Takei Moore called ‘DONABE:Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking’, which is full of yummy recipes!

The Iga-yaki ceramics

The climbing kiln at Nagatani-en (Source: Nagatani-en official website)

The most famous nabe in Japan come from Mie prefecture (Kansai region): Iga-yaki, ‘Iga ware’ which is said to be 1300 years old! The Iga region used to be the bed of Lake Biwa 4 million years ago, hence the clay to make the local potteries. The local clay being very resistant to fire, the potteries are put inside the fire for three days in a kiln dug into the ground.

Iga ware is famous for its strong and rustic potteries. They used to be the first ones in Japan to have ‘ear’ lugs, and then were imitated by other wares. Nowadays the potteries are used for all occasions: you can find it in tea ceremony rooms but also but also as everyday household goods.

Among all the makers of Iga-ware, one of the most popular ones is Nagatani-en. It is the only place in Iga where you can see noborigama, or climbing kiln, which was in use until the mid 60s. Nagatani-en has been making potteries since 1832, and its dynasty of masters count seven generations. The current charismatic master, Yuuji Nagatani, is a famous craftsman in Japan and his bright smile is often seen on Japanese TV and in Japanese magazines. He was even featured in ‘Crafted’, a short documentary film by Morgan Spurlock (the director of ‘Supersize me’).

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Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.