Soup, as a concept, is simple. A medley of ingredients is cooked in simmering water or broth. It’s one of the oldest recipes on the planet, and strikingly useful.
In Japan, this notion has evolved into high art. Nabe (NAH-beh) is shorthand for nabemono, a broad category of brothy soups that may be more recognizable by its Westernized name—hot pot. As “Japanese Soul Cooking” author Tadashi Ono puts it: “They’re heartier than soup but not as dense as stew.” Hot pots are Japanese home cooking at its simplest, economical one-pot endeavors meant to feed a family.
The name of one such soup, yosenabe, loosely translates to “anything goes hot pot.” A wide range of ingredients—mostly whatever is on hand—can be cooked in its broth.
The secret to yosenabe is layering flavors. Dense or long-cooking items go into the broth first, to simmer; more delicate ingredients follow. Each addition—meat, seafood or vegetable—contributes its respective flavors as it cooks, turning the simple soup into something far greater than the sum of the parts. There is also a convenience factor. It takes just minutes to prepare, without any precooking.
For our yosenabe, we decided to lean heavily on vegetables. Most Japanese soups begin with dashi, a simple yet potent broth made from sheets of umami-rich kombu seaweed and bonito, shaved shreds of smoked tuna. As both ingredients can be hard to find, we used more common, equally flavorful alternatives: fresh shiitake mushrooms and wakame seaweed. Wakame comes shredded and tastes slightly sweet and oceanic. Look for it in the Asian foods aisle at most grocery stores.
The seaweed went into the water at the start with a few sliced carrots. The mushrooms followed shortly after, along with cubes of soft tofu to add some heft. To this base we added mustardy chopped napa cabbage, a staple in nabe cooking.
Salty-sweet miso paste is a less conventional flavoring, though one we quite liked. Mild white miso paste suited the vegetables; more pungent yellow miso came on too strong. To evenly disperse the thick paste through the soup, we mixed it with some hot broth before stirring the blend back in.
We returned the ever-improving broth to a simmer and finished with a handful of baby spinach, which contributed a mineral-rich sweetness to emphasize the shiitake’s flavor.
We were pleased to find there was little timing to mind: Each ingredient cooked through in the time it took for the pot to return to a simmer over a steady medium heat.
To boost the otherwise-light flavors, yosenabe is typically seasoned with a blend of soy sauce, sesame oil or scallions. We added all of them—but only once the soup had cooked through. That kept their flavors bright, clean and fresh.
Some of us liked a jolt of chili oil to garnish, but we’ll leave that choice up to you.