In Praise of Clay Pot Cooking 1: the Donabe

fig. a: dinner with  donabe  (far right)

fig. a: dinner with donabe (far right)

Michelle has been on a Japanese kick for at least a couple of years now. Japanese pickles. Japanese country cooking. Hand-dyeing her own shibori tablecloths (pictured above). You know, that kind of thing. And she’d also started to acquire some Japanese ceramic ware in order to up her game. She was pretty happy (very happy, actually) with the savoury stews that resulted from her experiments with using commercial Japanese clay pots, but she still wasn’t fully satisfied. What she really wanted was a ceramic pot—a donabe—that was suited for cooking rice. She’d read that once you cooked high-grade Japanese short-grain properly in a rice donabe there was no going back. Especially if you took the trouble to seek out an artisanal model from Japan’s Iga region, which is famous for the quality of its clay, as well as for the centuries-old tradition of ceramics that has fashioned this clay into some of Japan’s finest cookware. So she started to drop no-so-subtle hints.

I pretended as though I wasn’t getting the message, but early this year I began to do some research well in advance of Michelle’s birthday. I had thought that I would have to order a model from Toiro in Los Angeles, the store that’s most closely associated with donabe cooking in North America because its owner, Naoko Takei Moore, literally wrote the book on the topic (Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking), and was the first one to import such models to the States. Michelle has become a disciple of Takei Moore’s, so I was happy to do business with them, but I was worried about having one shipped, and getting one shipped to Canada appeared to be even more of a hassle. Then I found a stylish little store in New York City called Nalata/Nalata that also stocked the same double-lidded rice cooker donabes from Iga. Seeing as I was just about to be down in NYC for a film function at Anthology Film Archives, I decided to look up Nalata/Nalata’s precise location, and what I discovered was that they were quite literally half a block away from Anthology. What are the chances?

Anyway, when the surprise was finally revealed, and Michelle received her gift, she was overjoyed to see that her hints had actually registered with me, but she was even more overjoyed when she seasoned her new donabe and used it to cook rice the first time. The results were perfection. And they have been every time she’s put her donabe to work since then. Every grain blessed with the ideal texture. Every grain a little jewel of goodness.

fig. b: rice by  donabe

fig. b: rice by donabe

There’s just something about that donabe’s thick, porous clay body, its brilliant double-lid design (complete with that slot to hold your rice paddle), and those hundreds and hundreds years of skill and know-how that went into its production.

Mostly Michelle uses the donabe to make rice, but she’s also used it to cook more elaborate dishes from time to time—like ginger-marinated chicken thighs with schmaltz rice (!), and a variety of different wintery Japanese stews.

The added bonus is that the perfect rice has inspired her to expand her Japanese repertoire to include such gems as pickled magnolia buds (!!).* Takei Moore claims that rice donabes from the Iga region produce rice that’s so good that it doesn’t even need accompaniment, “because it [is] just so delicious as itself.” And she’s right. But this rice is also so good that it elevates virtually everything that’s served with it, and it encourages you—the cook—to prepare dishes befitting it.

fig. c: pickled magnolia buds (right)

fig. c: pickled magnolia buds (right)

Takei Moore refers to the pleasures associated with Japanese clay pot cooking as “Happy Donabe Life.”

It’s only been a few months, but I think I already understand.


*More on these later.