Peony Hot Pot
On Monday, I get a call from my boss. We talk about work. He hangs up. As I'm about to leave the house, I get another phone call. It's him again. Oh, by the way, they're having a dinner together at the office today. Can I join them? Of course I can. They're having Botan Nabe, he says. We hang up again. It strikes me a second later, having read a few nabe recipes online, that I've heard of Botan Nabe. It's wild boar!! I actually ate wild boar last night!
We had this extravagant dinner in the beautiful machiya (traditional Kyoto townhouse) next door to the office. As it became late afternoon, I was roped into cutting vegetables. As you might know, there's a way to do everything correctly when it comes to the arts in Japan, and that includes slicing vegetables. I had no idea how to slice them correctly. Is this ok? Is this ok? I don't know, but it works, I was told.
In comes the tea master, the guest of honor that evening, and a good friend of the higher ups. Of course he enters through the kitchen and practically yelps with terror. "Stupid, that's not how you cut vegetables!" (And he did say 'aho' a few times, I'm not making the 'stupid' part up.) I let the native Japanese-speaker working with me handle the sensei's (teacher's) attack, while I quietly listened and followed the new directions.
Most of what had been done wrong, had been done by me of course. How was I supposed to know? And that is why the picture above is not nearly as beautiful as it should be. I completely understand the poor tea master's fright at seeing the tortured vegetables. Not only was it not nicely presented in the pot, but we had taken a lot of the nutrients that stick to the surface of vegetables off along with the dirt. I have learned my lesson.
However, as soon as the sensei was settled between the two boiling pots (for 11 people) that would soon hold our dinner, right in front of the biggest tray of (very unhappy) vegetables with a glass of wine in his hands, he started cheering up. Halfway through the evening, he started apologizing for his rant in the kitchen. Introductions were made, and it was only then that I actually met him properly for the first time.
The meal was spectacular. Boar meat has a reputation for being stinky, but this meat had been hunted by the tea sensei’s brother in Kameoka (a town known for its wild boar and Botan Nabe) and was of the highest quality. Think of rich tasting pork. Of course, because wild boar is wild, the meat can be tougher than farm-raised pork, but if it is left in the pot to cook a long time, it turns soft and is perfect dipped in the dark miso sauce. The longer the whole dish cooked, the better it got, so no matter how much we’d already eaten, the next bite always looked more tempting than the last.
I also learned why the dish we were so veraciously consuming was called Botan Nabe. There is a traditional Japanese card game, called hanafuda, that uses similar cards as Western poker or bridge. However, instead of being numbered, the cards are arranged according to the 12 months. Each month has four cards that have varying pictures of that month’s blooming flowers and an animal. Apparently, the June (or July?) card has peonies and wild boars on it. Before Japan’s modernization, when most people were a bit more devoutly Buddhist, it was taboo to eat meat. So people wouldn’t say they were eating boar nabe, but peony nabe. Hence, “Botan Nabe.”
As the first dishes were being cleared from the table, sensei, who had had quite a good amount of wine and was thoroughly enjoying himself, caught my attention and began talking to me. He said that this evening had been exactly what tea ceremony was all about: spending time with friends and sharing sustenance. "Kono shunkan ga taisetsu desu yo." (‘This moment is precious.’) Next time we meet, things will be different. Other people will join us, others will not be able to come, and even if the same people meet again, the time in between meetings will have changed things. Make the most of the moment and enjoy the time together. As he said this, he started looking melancholy as the meal had obviously come to an end.
miso paste (a special kind made especially for Botan Nabe)
wild boar, very thinly sliced
wild boar liver, sliced in 1/4 inch pieces
Chinese cabbage (see how to chop below)
burdock root (see how to prepare below)
green onions, cut in 1 inch pieces at a diagonal
shirataki noodles (a form of konnyaku)
shiitake and shimeji mushrooms
10 new friends, two nabe pots, and a lot of wine
Make konbu dashi (konbu stock) by boiling the seaweed in water until the water takes on flavor from the seaweed. Add a little bit of soy sauce (maybe 2 tablespoons to 3 cups of stock). Bring the pot of stock and all the other ingredients to the table to be cooked by everyone.
You can make the dipping sauce at the table by mixing some miso with stock from the nabe pot in your personal bowl.
To eat, pull out cooked pieces of meat and vegetables and put them into the sauce in your bowl. Top with sansho to add a little spice. For more variety, add some red wine to the miso dipping sauce halfway through the dinner (the tea master did exactly this).
How to Prepare Chinese Cabbage
The wrong way: I had pulled off all the leaves, washed them thoroughly and hacked them into 3 cm squares, like I'd seen on TV and in Okasan's (my former host mother's) kitchen many times.
The right way: Take off a few outer leaves, rinse the outside of the cabbage, and chop at a perpendicular, creating thick, round chunks of cabbage that will bloom when put in the nabe stock.
How to Prepare Burdock Root
The wrong way: With a knife, scrape all the dark brown dirt (and most of the skin) off until the root is mostly white before you cut it. Then whittle the root like the tip of a pencil into small, thin pieces.
The right way: Wash the surface of the root with your hands and perhaps scrub it with a sponge or rough brush before cutting. The skin should be brown, and if there's a teensy bit of dirt left, it never hurt anyone. I got the whittling right the first time!