By MACKIE JIMBO
Winter has finally arrived in Los Angeles. For most Angelenos, temperatures dipping into the brisk low sixties mean swapping shorts for sweaters, digging holiday decorations out of storage, and preparing for the onslaught of holiday celebrations. But for culinarily-minded folks like me, winter’s arrival means the end of salads and stone fruit, and the beginning of soups, stews, braises, and baking. And for Naoko Takei Moore, also known as Mrs. Donabe by her followers, winter in L.A. means hot pot season. “I make lots of hot pot during the wintertime,” Moore said.
Moore is the owner of TOIRO, a spacious shop located in West Hollywood that has become L.A.’s, and perhaps the entire country’s, premier destination for donabe. The Japanese equivalent of a Dutch oven, donabe are domed clay cooking pots known for imparting umami, intensely savory flavors. “The clay is slow to build heat. But once it builds heat, the donabe stays hot for a long time,” Moore explained. “That slow temperature changing process is the key to developing umami flavor.” Moore sources her donabe from Nagatani-en, an eighth-generation producer located in Iga, Japan that has been in the donabe business since 1832. Nagatani-en makes each donabe by hand, using clay indigenous to the Iga region. “In Japan, people say the Iga region makes the best donabe,” Moore noted. “And it’s because, during prehistoric times, the region used to be covered by Lake Biwa and the land was underwater. So today, the clay from Iga contains fossilized microorganisms from the prehistoric era.” These microorganisms cause the clay to be extremely porous when heated, meaning that the clay will retain and distribute heat more evenly. The porous clay also has a rough, imperfect texture, which adds to the wabi sabi, rustic aesthetic of Iga-made donabe.
Moore tread an unconventional path to opening TOIRO. She started her career in Japan’s music industry working for a record label. Her favorite part of the job, though, was wining and dining clients and exploring Tokyo’s restaurant scene. In 2001, Moore left her music career and life in Tokyo behind to pursue her passion for food. She moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu at the California School of Culinary Arts. After graduating, Moore joined the school as its first full-time wine instructor and built the school’s wine curriculum from scratch.
Moore knew that she wanted to do something in food that showcased her Japanese heritage. She realized that, although Americans were familiar with Japanese restaurant food like sushi and tempura, they were completely unfamiliar with Japanese home cooking, especially donabe. “Donabe really symbolizes Japanese home cooking, but it was basically unknown in the U.S.,” Moore observed. Growing up in Tokyo, Moore had fond memories of her mom making her porridge in an individual-size donabe whenever she stayed home sick from school. “I actually looked forward to getting sick,” Moore laughed. Her family also cooked hot pot together often for dinner. Inspired by these memories, Moore wanted to introduce Americans to the joy, simplicity, and community of donabe cooking.
In 2008, Moore began importing donabe from Nagatani-en and selling them from her house. To inform people about donabe’s uses and versatility, Moore also taught donabe cooking classes at her house. Word of mouth about Moore spread, and her business soon took off. In 2015, Moore and Chef Kyle Connaughton of SingleThread Farms, a Michelin three-star restaurant and inn located in Healdsburg, Calif., co-wrote a cookbook titled “Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking.” And in October 2017, Moore opened TOIRO, transforming an abandoned gallery space on La Brea into an elegant emporium dedicated to artisan donabe and Japanese kitchenware. The store is a tranquil refuge from the chaos of La Brea, with its minimalist aesthetic and wood shelves lined with meticulously arranged donabe of all shapes, sizes, and earth-toned colors. A large table in the store’s center displays an array of Japanese table and kitchenware, from delicate sake cups to ceramic glazed dishes to bamboo serving utensils. Signs next to each item contain a personalized description of the producer and how the item was made, demonstrating the immense care that Moore has taken in selecting these items.
For those looking to buy their first donabe, TOIRO’s best-seller is the Kamado-san (priced from $120-325 depending on size). Nagatani-en designed the Kamado-san specifically for preparing premium-quality rice, adding a double-lid similar to a pressure cooker. “It took them years and years, and hundreds of prototypes, to develop the Kamado-san’s design,” Moore explained. Customers can also prepare soups, stews, and of course, hot pot, in the Kamado-san by simply removing the inner lid.
Chefs and home cooks from all over the world have embraced TOIRO’s donabe. “I have a really diverse audience: from really young to really old, female and male, and not just people from L.A., but from a lot of different places,” Moore remarked. Seeing her customers use their donabe in new and unexpected ways has been a pleasant surprise for Moore. For example, a customer from Sweden sent Moore photos of reindeer stew prepared in his donabe. And at Otium, a contemporary restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, Chef Timothy Hollingsworth serves French toast and fried pork belly, topped with a maple whip, in a donabe. “I wanted to take a different approach with the French toast and expand beyond your traditional American breakfast offerings,” Hollingsworth said. He fries the pork belly in the donabe, and then arranges the pork belly, bite-sized cubes of French toast, and dollops of maple whip on a grill sitting atop the interior of the donabe. The donabe is brought to the table, and when the lid is removed, smoke from the fried pork belly billows out for a dramatic flair. “The donabe provides a presentation element to the table that allows someone to enjoy a special experience with their meal,” Hollingsworth added.
Moore’s favorite use for donabe, though, is still hot pot. She combines different flavors and ingredients for endless hot pot variations, ranging from chicken and root vegetables cooked in a light ginger dashi broth, to pork and tofu cooked in a rich miso broth. She enjoys throwing dinner parties where guests can cook and eat hot pot right at the dining room table. “Hot pot tastes really great, and it’s ecological because when you cook at the table, you naturally heat the room,” Moore noted. And cooking hot pot in one of Nagatani-en’s handmade donabe, which embodies over two centuries of tradition, millennia of geologic history, and simplicity of wabi sabi beauty, elevates the experience even more. “It’s not just what you cook in the donabe,” Moore said. “It’s also the appearance and the touch of something that the Earth brings you.”
1257 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood, CA 90038; (323) 380-5052
Hours: Tue – Sun 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. (closed on Mondays)
Follow Mackie on Instagram (@gourmetmackie) for updates on where she’s eating in L.A. and beyond. You can also reach her at [email protected]