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Donabe Kitchen Art

The lasting taste and aroma from Japanese clay pots.

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Donabe is the traditional Japanese clay pot, which has been an essential part of Japanese cuisine for centuries. Used for both cooking and serving, a donabe simplifies the preparation and cleanup process. Even though the stoves we use have changed over the years and cuisine styles come and go, the donabe remains constant.

It’s incredibly versatile and can be used to boil soups, make rice, steam vegetables, or roast meat and potatoes.

According to Naoko Takei Moore, owner of TOIRO Kitchen and Supply, in Hollywood, California, it symbolizes Japanese dining culture. One of its most endearing features is that it allows chefs to bring cooking to the table and create the guest interactions that Japanese chefs are famous for.

Known as the queen of donabe, Moore believes that her Japanese roots are the key to her American success. From the samurai’s katana blade to the humble cook’s donabe, Moore is passionate about bringing the Japanese culture’s deep appreciation for craftsmanship to U.S. customers.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s something fancy or common. In Japan we like to find perfection. That’s what brings us joy,” she says.

Technically, donabe can be produced anywhere—but not really. The donabe-ware that Moore’s store carries all comes from the Iga region in Japan, which has been a source of clay for centuries and given birth to some of the most gifted ceramic artisans ever.

The secret to Iga goes back about four million years, when it was a prehistoric lake. Now, the entire region is a clay bed, rich with fossilized microorganisms. When Iga clay is fired, these microorganisms create tiny pockets, making the earthenware more porous, and thus better for cooking.

“Because of this, Iga clay is the most durable and efficient,” Moore says. Due to the special clay and the history of craftsmanship, Iga-ware, or Iga-yaki, is hard to replicate outside of the region.

Nagatani-en is a family-owned producer from whom Moore sources her ceramics. It has been making authentic Iga-yaki pottery since 1832. Iga-yaki ceramics are one-of-a-kind works of art. Every donabe pot is handcrafted by skilled artisans who allow variances in the shape, colour, and pattern of each piece. This unique beauty is referred to as wabi-sabi (the perfection of imperfections), something missing from today’s machine-manufactured goods. Each piece goes through strict quality checks before being released for retail. Nagatani-en’s artisanal quality stands the test of time and has been passed down through the generations.

Shiro-Maru donabe, like the one pictured here, have a unique round shape with an extra thick body to preserve heat. Their compact size makes them perfect for individual servings.

What are the benefits of cooking with donabe?

Moore says, “For a long time, people just knew it tasted better, but why? Because it’s made of clay, the food stays hot for a long time. Donabe also evenly distributes the heat. When food cools down too quickly, it loses flavour.”

Donabe slows down the cooking and cooling process by integrating them; many people today see it as an antidote to the hurry of modern life. Japan is currently undergoing a small kitchen revolution, where people are throwing out their digital rice cookers and replacing them with traditional donabe. These traditional clay pots work for everyone, from gourmet chefs to students. According to Moore, one doesn’t really need much culinary technique, “you let donabe do the work for you.”

But if that’s true, why haven’t we heard of them?

Precisely because of the donabe’s universal appeal, it’s importance has been lost in its mundane daily use.

“Growing up, we always had donabe,” Moore says. “When I got sick, my mother brought me a tiny donabe with a single serving. I think that’s why donabe has not been promoted outside of Japan. It’s just something we took for granted. We Japanese always use it.”

Unlike its strong, stylish modern counterparts, donabe is low-key and comforting. It’s made of clay; it’s warm and accessible, but at the same time it can be fragile.

Donabe brings a traditional ritual into modern kitchens, creating long-lasting tastes and aromas that we crave in our busy life. Its unique ability to blur boundaries between cooking and serving, between cooking and cooling, as well as its all-encompassing easy recipes, make it all the more appealing to modern people today.

Moore left us with these parting words, which explain it all: “We are from the earth, and donabe is made of the earth. Because of this, there is a connection that we all have with it.”

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