Japanese Vegetable Stew with Miso Broth

Vegetarian Japanese vegetable stew with miso broth
Japanese vegetable stew with miso (12 o’clock), brown rice (3 o’clock), Tokyo-style rolled omelet (6 o’clock), quick-pickled napa cabbage (9 o’clock)

When you’re looking for something hearty and warming — but also simple and healthy — as days become shorter and colder, look to the Japanese dishes called nabemono. These “simmered dishes” are often cooked in one pot (called a “nabe”), sometimes in the middle of the dining table over a portable burner.  In the West, the most famous nabemono is probably sukiyaki — beef and vegetables cooked in a broth of soy sauce, mirin (sweet sake), and other flavorings. All over Japan, you’re likely to see steaming pots of another famous nabemono called oden in convenience stores during the colder months (and, of course, oden makes plenty of appearances in standard restaurants and at home, and on some phone you’ll find an oden emoji).

A nabemono that I like to cook at home is a stew of root vegetables, Chinese cabbage, mushrooms and squash in a flavorful broth enriched by umami-packed miso and vegetarian broth.  One might call it a “supercharged miso soup:” much thicker than that generic cup at the Japanese restaurant and packed with vegetables.

Many Japanese foods look simple at first glance, but when you discover how they are made, the actual process is rather complicated.  This stew is the opposite of that.  It looks complicated — the recipe has a lot of steps, but is actually simple — many of the steps in the recipe are vegetable slicing or adding vegetables to the pot and stirring.  One could even put it into the category of ‘dump and stir’:  add some vegetables, let them cook a bit, add more, let them cook, and so on. (I wonder if there is an elegant Japanese phrase for ‘dump and stir’…)

Overcooked Vegetables Can Be Your Friend

A stew filled with ideally cooked vegetables is a challenge — even impossible — to achieve without excessive effort. Each piece of vegetable is a slightly different size and the heat application uneven, so you’re bound to get a variety of textures for each vegetable.  And some will be overcooked.  That’s OK for this stew and possibly even a feature: as the softer pieces and the sharp edges break down, they enrich the already flavorful broth. The thick broth coats the vegetables, making each bite more interesting. (You can see an even more dramatic way of building a vegetable-rich broth from A Duck’s Oven in a pumpkin spice chicken curry.)

A Few Specialized Ingredients Make a Big Difference

This stew calls for a few ingredients that you might not keep in your pantry, but it’s worth a trip to an Asian or natural foods market to find them.  The special ingredients –miso, kombu seaweed, and shiitake mushrooms (and Japanese sweet potatoes if you can find them) — are filled with umami, that savory something that chefs are so crazy about. In addition, these ingredients are that special something that give it a true Japanese flavor and aroma. As I was eating the latest batch I prepared, the subtle aroma of the kombu and miso transported me back to my visits to Japan — though certainly not as good as what I ate there, it was a tasty reminder.

Vegetarian Japanese vegetable stew with miso broth
Japanese vegetable stew with miso broth

Assembling a Stew Recipe

Like many recipes post here, this one is a hybrid of a few recipes, taking my favorite parts of several recipes and blending them into something somewhat new.  The foundation was built many years ago in a cooking class by Ayako Iino (current proprietor of Yume Boshi, I think). Her dish, which she called a houtou, was far more ambitious than this one, with handmade udon noodles. The noodles are easy to make, and are delicious, but in my experience they are trouble after the first serving. If left in the stew they dissolve; if dried for a second serving, cooking them requires too much of effort.  So I tossed away the noodles as I worked on the recipe.  (If you must have noodles in your stew, a package of udon from the store works OK.)

Further pieces were contributed by the vegetarian dashi (broth) and chicken stew in Elizabeth Andoh’s  Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home KitchenMy version of the vegetable stew swaps pieces of tofu for the chicken.

The final step in this journey was a piece on KCRW’s Good Food about Naoko Moore’s Kyoto Style Hot Pot. Ms. Moore’s interview inspired me to try a vegetarian version of her recipe, and that process helped refine the recipe that was simmering in my mind.

 

Vegetarian Japanese vegetable stew with miso
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Japanese Vegetable Stew with Miso Broth

This Japanese vegetable stew of root vegetables, Chinese cabbage and squash is one of my favorite cold weather dishes. As they cook, the vegetables create a rich broth that is enhanced by umami-rich miso paste and a vegetarian dashi.  

Course Main Course
Cuisine Japanese
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Total Time 50 minutes
Servings 4

Ingredients

  • 600 grams kabocha squash weight is unpeeled, with seeds. 3 cups after cutting. Other winter squashes might work too
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil 15 mL
  • 200 grams leeks or negi 1 medium (100 grams trimmed, 1 cup diced)
  • 200 grams napa cabbage about 6 cups (1.5 L)
  • 300 grams carrots 4 medium
  • 375 grams sweet potato 1 large. A Japanese variety like satsuma is ideal, but other varieties should work, as would waxy potatoes like Yukon Gold
  • 4 shiitake mushrooms fresh or dry
  • 2 tbsp sake 30 mL
  • 2 tbsp miso (red, white or a blend) 30 mL
  • 2 tsp soy sauce 10 mL
  • 2 cups dashi (stock) 0.5 L

Instructions

Ahead of Time

  1. 8-24 hours before you start cooking, start making the dashi (see separate recipe below). If you used whole shiitake mushrooms in the dashi, save them to use in the stew.

    If you didn't get the 8-24 hour head-start, you can make a quick version of the dashi (see notes in the separate recipe).

Prepare the vegetables

  1. It is probably best to prepare all of the vegetables ahead of time, but if you are a quick slicer, they could be prepared as you go while the previous vegetables are cooking. In that case, the vegetable groupings are 1) leek; 2) carrot; 3) sweet potato and squash; 4) white part of cabbage and mushroom; 5) green part of cabbage.

  2. Mushrooms: If mushrooms are dry, soak them in hot water to soften, then drain, saving the soaking water to add to the stew after pouring it through a coffee filter or very fine strainer. Slice the mushrooms into strips.  Put the strips into a bowl large enough to also hold the white parts of the napa cabbage.

    Mushroom cutting diagram
  3. Leek: After cutting off the green part and root end, quarter the leek lengthwise.  Slice into 1/4" pieces.  Put the chopped leeks into a bowl of water and agitate to remove any sand or grit.  After a few minutes, scoop out the leeks to leave behind sand and grit.

    Leek cutting diagram
  4. Carrots: Cut the carrots into 1/2" long slices (a roll cut is best here). Put the cut carrots into a bowl.

    Carrot cutting diagram
  5. Sweet potato:  Cut the sweet potato into chunks that can fit onto a spoon (about 1/2" on a side).  Uneven is OK (and unavoidable). Put the sweet potato in a bowl large enough to also hold the squash.

    Sweet potato cutting diagram
  6. If using a kabocha squash, peel part or all of the squash (the peel is edible).  If using another squash (like butternut), peel it.  Cut the squash into bite size pieces.  Uneven is OK (and unavoidable).  Put the squash in a bowl with the sweet potato.

    Squash cutting diagram
  7. Napa cabbage: Separate the white part of the napa from the leafy part.  Roughly chop the green parts of the napa cabbage, with the goal of pieces that will fit on a spoon without trouble (no long dangling).  

    Combine the white parts with the mushrooms. Put the green pieces into a separate bowl.

    Napa cabbage cutting diagram

Cook the stew

  1. Heat oil over medium heat. Add the leeks. Cook for 5 minutes until soft, stirring frequently.

  2. Add carrots and broth (dashi). Stir.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Cover, cook for 5 minutes.

  3. Add the sake and cook for about 1 minute, covered.

  4. Add squash and sweet potato. Stir.  Cover, cook for 5 minutes.

  5. Add white part of napa cabbage and mushrooms. Stir.  Cover, cook for 5 minutes.

  6. Extract about 1 cup of the liquid from the pot into a heat-proof container (like the pan used to make the dashi).

  7. Add the miso to the extracted liquid and whisk to distribute it evenly. You want to avoid lumps.

  8. Pour the liquid / miso mixture into the pot.

  9. Add the soy sauce and reduce the heat to low.

  10. Add the leafy parts of the napa cabbage. Stir. Cover, cook for 5 minutes.

Recipe Notes

The type of miso you choose will influence the final flavor:  red is bold and hearty; white is often sweet and mellow. (I usually choose red.)

Inspirations for this recipe were a class by Ayako Iino and Naoko Moore's Kyoto Style Hot Pot.  Various recipes in Elizabeth Andoh's Washoku were also helpful (the vegetarian dashi, for example).

Vegetarian Dashi Stock

A critical building block of vegetarian Japanese cooking, this stock is full of naturally-occurring flavor enhancers from kombu seaweed and shiitake mushrooms.  Ideally, the seaweed and mushrooms will soak for many hours, but that isn't essential. A decent stock can be made in a hurry.

Course Sauce
Cuisine Japanese
Prep Time 1 minute
Cook Time 8 minutes
Total Time 9 minutes

Ingredients

  • 15-20 square inches kombu sea vegetable
  • 2-4 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 4 cups cool water

Instructions

  1. Place a piece of kombu sea vegetable and several dried shiitake mushrooms into the water. For best results, use a glass or ceramic container.

  2. Let this mixture steep for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator. A long soaking allows the natural glutamates (flavor enhancers) to develop and dissolve into the water.

  3. When ready to make the stock, put the mixture in a pan over medium heat.
  4. Bring it almost to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly to keep it at a low simmer. Keep it at this point for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat.
  5. Let the mixture steep for 5 minutes more, and then strain into a saucepan.
  6. Save the shiitake mushrooms for another use (recipes that call for dashi also often use shiitake mushrooms).  The kombu is often discarded, though there are certainly recipes that use it (Washoku has a one for a kombu relish).

Recipe Notes

Adapted from Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, by Elizabeth Andoh

5 comments


  1. The recipe graphics are just lyrical, a fabulous addition to this flavor packed stew.
    The switch has been flipped, mornings and evenings have gotten much colder and this lush vegetable stew would brighten any dreary autumn evening.

  2. Dan — I appreciate feedback on my recipes and posts, and would like to address your question. However, it is not clear to me which part of the recipes you are referring to. If you could clarify, I will do my best to fix the recipe.


  3. Great, easy recipe — with good instructions! I just saw a fascinating episode of NHK America’s “Trails to Tsukiji” about miso — and another about konnyaku (yam cake). I immediately searched the internet and found your recipe for a vegetarian stew using a miso-dashi broth. I didn’t have konnyaku — but I did use tofu, sweet potato, butternut squash (though I tried to find the edible-peel kabocha or delicata), carrot and fresh shiitake. I also “cheated” and used some Hondashi instant dashi granules (which does contain fish) that I had available. The resulting stew was a subtle — but umami-rich — flavor revelation! Thanks for sharing! I’m lucky enough to live in Seattle — so I’m going to try to find other authentic Japanese stew ingredients (daikon, gobo, konnyaku, lotus root, maybe fish cake…) and will use your great recipe as a starting point. Thanks again!

  4. Ray — Thanks for reading and trying the recipe. It’s one of my favorite autumn and winter dishes. I mess around with the ingredients frequently — butternut squash is one of my regular substitutions.

    I’m a big fan of the NHK World “Trails To Tsukiji” series (renamed “Trails to Oishii Tokyo” after the market was moved so its land could be used for the Olympics) — the miso and konnyaku episodes are two of my favorites. If I ever go to Japan again, the miso shop and konnyaku village will be high on my list of places to visit.

    Markets specializing in Japanese food are the best bet for konnyaku, but it’s possible that one of the big chain Asian markets like 99 Ranch carry it. I’m lucky in this way because my favorite market (Berkeley Bowl) is owned by people with Japanese background, so one of the refrigerated cases has many Japanese delicacies, like konnyaku, shiratake noodles, and so many tubs of miso.

    It’s been quite a while since I visited Seattle, but I recall visiting some large Japanese markets south of the city center (International District?). They’ll certainly carry konnyaku.

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