I remember a line from an old Bill Cosby routine that went “I had gone to great lengths to prove to Junior Barnes that I was his greatest friend. Let him drink out of my soda bottle without even wiping it off.” This gesture of friendship is the same concept behind Japanese nabemono, or one-pot cookery. In the words of Shizuo Tsuji, author of the somewhat mis-named Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, sharing nabemono is a way of saying to someone “I like you enough to dip my chopsticks into the same pot you just dipped yours in.” Sukiyaki and shabu-shabu (see Chris’s post on that subject) are examples of nabemono. The basic idea is that a big heavy pot of something is brought to the table and everyone eats from it, with dipping sauces on the side. Sometimes, as with shabu-shabu, the food is cooked at the table itself. (I generally take issue with Tsuji’s idea that Japanese cooking is simple. I suppose it is also simple to carve an elephant: just take a piece of wood and remove all the parts that don’t look like an elephant. In this case, however, the word is appropriate. Not only was nabemono one of the simplest things I have ever made, it was the tastiest.)
I recently chanced upon another book by Masaru Doi, the 1960s television chef I mentioned in my last post. This entire book was dedicated to nabemono, and despite the fact that it was modeled around a weight-watchers-esque picture card format, was refreshingly authentic in feel. How often have you seen a recipe that requires you to have a helmet-shaped ‘Ghenghis Khan griddle’? For nabemono is all about the pot, its shape, its materials, its aethetics. ‘Nabemono’ means ‘pot things.’
I don’t have a Ghenghis Khan griddle, but I have a few beautiful cast iron deep frypans which suit me just as well. Here is my adaptation of Masaru Doi’s ‘Negima-nabe,’ which is based around tuna and leeks. The quick and easy preparation is deceptive: this is an amazingly good way to serve fresh fish.
Tuna and Leek Nabe
2/3 lb tuna, cut into 1½ x 1 x ½” pieces. I used ahi.
2 skinny leeks, sliced into 1 1/2″ lengths
2 eggs, for dipping
3 Tb sake
¼ cup soy sauce
2 Tb sugar
togarashi, a hot spice mix combining chili pepper, orange peel, black sesame seeds, sansho (Sichuan pepper), ginger, and nori (seaweed). You could just use pepper, I suppose, but togarashi is not that hard to find.
Beat the eggs in small separate bowls and sprinkle with togarashi. Each diner gets a bowl as a dipping sauce.
Boil a cup of water with the sake, soy sauce and sugar in a cast iron skillet. Lower the heat and add the tuna and leeks. When the tuna changes colour, turn it over and cook for one or two more minutes. Bring the skillet hot to the table. Eat with chopsticks, dipping each morsel of food briefly into the beaten egg before eating. You can see now why the skillet should be cast iron, which retains heat to keep the food hot enough to cook the egg dip.
A word or two on raw eggs.
What tends to pop into most people’s mind when raw eggs are mentioned is salmonella poisoning. I’m not sure how this association came about, but I suspect it was a kind of runaway fear campaign of the type that put so many bakeries out of business when the New York Times ran an article on how awesome it would be if people stopped eating carbohydrates. A 2002 study by the US Department of Agriculture (Risk Analysis April 2002 22(2):203-18) found that only 0.003% of all eggs are infected, which is to say 1 in 30,000. When you add to that the fact contaminated eggs only come from sick chickens, by buying healthy free-range organic eggs you can practically eliminate the risk. And in any case, the food from the skillet should be hot enough to cook the egg on contact.
Anyway, raw eggs dip may seem a little weird, but it is quite delightful. It adds a succulent depth and silkiness to the meaty tuna.