Updated: Nov 13
Japanese hot pot, commonly known as sukiyaki, is easy to find in Japan. It's predecessor called gyunabe, however, is dying out. Dating back to nearly 200 years ago, this Japanese specialty historically reigns from the Port of Yokohama, and I had to try it from its founding city while I was there. Below, understand the history of gyunabe and what it is, and how to best take in the Japanese hot pot experience at the infamous Araiya restaurant for its set course meals.
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The History of Gyunabe
For hundreds of years in Japan there was a Buddhist ban on eating any meat coming from a four-legged animal. This ban created what I have to assume is the reason for a large dependency on the seafood trade in Japan as we know it today (other than the obvious that it is surrounded by sea).
Raw fish, rice, miso soup and vegetables commonly accompany every meal, so the emergence of meat from cows or pigs was not only not present, but not acceptable.
When the Port of Yokohama opened in the mid 1850s, ships brought in all manner of people and produce. Foreigners were bringing in new appetites for meat and other dishes not seen in Japan prior, like Spaghetti Napolitan, a ketchup based pasta. As palettes changed and meat was re-introduced, gyunabe was born.
Modern Japanese Hot Pot
The traditional serving for Japanese hot pot, or specifically gyunabe, is to cook raw beef in a hot pot consisting of soy sauce and sugar broth.
When I Dip, You Dip, We Dip
Bubbling with vegetables and flavor, the beef is dipped in a raw egg bath before consuming. Many might find the idea of eating raw egg unpleasing with worries of salmonella infection.
In fact, the Japanese hold their standards of egg care and distribution so high, that this is actually not a concern whatsoever. This is why you will see raw egg often served over white rice, or predominantly for dipping meats prepared sukiyaki style.
The egg adds such a depth of flavor to the otherwise less exciting meat, that dipping it is a must when trying this Japanese hot pot style. Without the egg bath, you will find that the flavor is much less enjoyable.
So Is It Just Sukiyaki Then?
Although the name gyunabe seems to have died out, this is pretty much identical to the preparation of sukiyaki, which is a very popular dish in Japan. The only difference may be in the preparation of the hot pot broth, which may contain more sugar than other versions of sukiyaki.
Gyunabe at Araiya Restaurant
Gyunabe does not appear to have a strong hold in the Yokohoma area as it once did when the port first opened in 1859. Upon seeking out this special dish, Google renders only modest results - 3 or 4 in Yokohama and a handful in Tokyo proper.
One of the few found in Yokohama, Araiya Restaurant has been making "Sukiyaki Yokohama Style" since 1895!
Starting at around $60 per person for dinner (and $45 for lunch), the Araiya restaurant in Yokohama is one of the most popular and famous restaurants still offering gyunabe, and it is well worth the visit if you are touring the Yokohama area. With multi-course meals you can select online in advance, this experience is not to be missed.
Location and Reservations
First, go their website and make a reservation. I suggest doing this as least 2-3 weeks out. There are two locations, so be sure to choose the one here:
Japan, 〒231-0002 Kanagawa, Yokohama, Naka Ward, Kaigandori, 4 Chome−23 海岸通４丁目市街地住宅 1階
When making your reservation, have Google translate the page automatically to English and then select the grade of beef you would like. We selected the lowest grade at $60 a person and this was a perfectly delicious choice (I mean, look at that marbling!).
Note: If you are booking for adults and non-participant children, you may need to go into your confirmation email and revise the booking to later include the children. The form didn't allow me to book my kid first. Also, you do not need to pay in advance, as the website would make it appear. You pay upon completion of the meal.
Set Course Meal Structure
Once you arrive at Araiya, you will remove your shoes and walk along the tatami flooring to your private dinner room.
There will be some confusing exchanges in Japanese and English (with the help of Google Translate) where you will need to make one choice for your meal - beef appetizer or sashimi appetizer. Of course you will also need to select a beverage.
Next comes out the following flow of dishes:
A bbq flavored amuse-bouche of meat (not pictured)
A trio of bite-sized appetizers including a shell full of creamy seafood, a noodly meat dumpling, and a green vegetable topped with some kind of creamy substance. This trio was definitely a perplexing, albeit yummy round on the course set.
Your chosen appetizer
The Japanese hot pot (gyunabe) and fixings: this includes tofu and vegetables
Udon noodles in the same hot pot broth
Matcha ice cream and tea
Each dish was beautifully prepared and oh-so-delicious. Check out the spread!
Gyunabe At Home
Fantastically enough, in searching for "gyunabe sukiyaki", I found a local restaurant pop up in my search! Whether it's specifically the gyunabe "Yokohama style" of sukiyaki or not, you can find this popular and beloved dish outside Japan, too.
Don't get too hung up on the difference between gyunabe broth and sukiyaki broth, because honestly, I can't say I could acknowledge the difference in flavors from my previous sukiyaki experiences.
Apparently for those manga lovers out there, gyunabe has a serious fan base for Demon Slayer fans. This guy went so far as to type up the details on how to make a similar gyunabe at home, so maybe give it a try!
Whether you are in Yokohama for Araiya's delectable feast of meats and seafood, pondering over sukiyaki pots in Tokyo, or making it at home, I recommend trying Japanese hot pot in any of its forms, because sukiyaki is truly a wonderful way to enjoy a traditional Japanese experience.