New Toy

On the doorstep is a box, shipped straight from Japan! Packed inside, carefully, is a donabe, a lidded clay cooking pot beloved all over the island nation for the full-flavored moistness it bestows. Lots of ideas for dishes to try, but most of them seem oriented to winter. You know, steaming pot and all.

It’s July, though, and inspiration certainly won’t wait four months for the frosts. Especially not when Bon Appetit highlighted Soy and Ginger Steamed Fish in its April 2020 issue. Right there, something meant to compliment warmer weather. No delays, then – it’s go time. Wash the donabe and season it for its maiden voyage, and we’ll see if the reputation is earned

First, though, more of the donabe, and of the serving bowl, also handcrafted in Japan, before fulfilling its mission:

Key to the donabe‘s success, it turns out, is its ability to build flavors in layers, each rising to new heights, while introducing what unfolds next. It all begins with a broth, powerful in its flavored simplicity. Water, soy sauce and a little sake and mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine). Plus the secret ingredient, a section of kombu, dried kelp:

The kombu imparts a minerally richness which compliments the umami (deeply savory) presence of the soy sauce. Really, it’s indispensable in setting the tone. After all, the broth is the foundation from which everything else rises.

When the broth integrates, in go the other ingredients, the black bass, the baby spinach, two different kinds of mushrooms (shitake and oyster) and the matchstick ginger. Then on goes the lid and the whole thing simmers to build layers which rise to sweet, savory, leafy, perfection.

Ten minutes later, the lid comes off once again to reveal the meal, sophisticated in its clean simplicity. It then is ladled over rice divided into individual serving bowls. Not just any rice, but the good stuff, if the woman at the Asian market is to be believed:

Why, she is to be believed! Most excellent grain, which keeps its shape while soaking up all of those beautiful flavors.

Of course, most of the credit still goes to the donabe, which made such a splendidly choreographed production possible. The combination is exquisitely Japanese, quiet in its refined elegance. Perfect too for mid-summer, light and pure, yet satisfying and richly-flavored.

If this is what a donabe can do now, just wait a few months for winter, when it really will hit its stride. This is one toy which most definitely will have a long, happy life outside the box.


Soy and Ginger Steamed Fish

  • 2 (6- to 8-ounce) skinless black bass filets (*1)
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 (4-inch x 3-inch) dried kombu, optional (*2)
  • 2 tablespoons sake (*3)
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon mirin (*4)
  • 1/2 medium head of Napa cabbage, stems sliced thinly and leaves torn (*5)
  • 4 ounces mixed mushrooms, torn into large pieces (*6)
  • 1 (2-inch) piece of ginger, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
  • cooked rice, for serving
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil, for serving
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal, for serving

Slice each fish filet into 3 pieces. Season all over with salt and set aside.

Combine kombu (if using), sake, soy sauce, mirin and 3/4 cup water in a medium donabe or large saucepan. (*7) Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Layer in the greens. Scatter mushrooms and ginger over and place reserved fish on top. Cover pot and cook until fish is just cooked through, about 8-10 minutes.

Spoon some rice into bowls and top with vegetables and fish, dividing evenly. Ladle broth over. Drizzle with sesame oil and top with scallions.


1 – Though black bass is superb here, any sort of firm-fleshed fish also will work well. Salmon or monkfish, for example, are two good options.

2 – If you can’t find kombu in the stores, mail-order it, and wait the two or three weeks for the package to arrive. Seriously, it’s that beneficial to the meal. Making the broth without kombu still would work, though something definitely will be missing.

3 – Out of sake (pity)? Try white wine.

4 – Likewise, white wine also could fill in for mirin, though perhaps not as stylishly.

5 – As this dish definitely is a summer application, baby spinach is an ideal choice. Napa is one of the lighter cabbages, but still it is, you know, a cabbage.

6 – I used shitakes and oyster mushrooms. Beech and maitake mushrooms are two other good options.

7 – A large saucepan will work well here, so don’t despair if you don’t have a donabe. You just will spend the rest of your life wondering “what if?”


10 thoughts on “New Toy

    1. Sure, Tamara! I do like sushi, but that suggests a post for another day.

      Not only was this weekend’s fish cooked adequately, but deliciously too, I might add. Start with dashi and add shoyu, sake, scallions and lots of ginger, and…there you go!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Tamara! I’m waiting for the snow to start falling for the donabe to accomplish its mission.

      This weekend turned out alright, enough to stoke anticipation, but I think the steamer’s really going to excel when it’s not 94 degrees outside.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Crystal!

      Not just yours, but umami has everyone’s number. It wasn’t accepted into Taste’s Pantheon until recently, and now it wants to be sure it never is overlooked again. I’m doing what I can to help.

      Regarding the matchsticks and the donabe, both are scheduled for encore appearances. Let’s go, knife skills!


      1. Talk about “Woohoo,” Crystal…

        I’m elated the donabe works, and that it promises even better results for the future. Else, that would’ve been a big expense for disappointment. It’s not as though it were sterling silver, but it wasn’t cheap either. Especially not coming all the way from Japan. 🗾


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