I’m busy and it’s cold, cold, cold outside. Let’s cook up some meat and potatoes, Japanese style. Nikujaga (pronounced like Mick-oo Jagga) is Japan’s answer to the pot roasts and beef stews of the western world. In fact, it was developed by Japanese naval chefs in imitation of the beef stew the British navy served to its sailors. I’m sure you’re at a loss to come up with a finer culinary pedigree than “British Military Cuisine“, but bear with me for a moment. In order to understand why the Japanese would adopt something so seemingly mundane with, as it turns out, a great deal of enthusiasm, we must step into the WABAC Machine for a moment. For the better part of three centuries, Japan experienced a period of self-imposed isolation from external cultural influence. From 1603 to 1853 Japan experienced minimal contact with foreigners beyond their archipelago; limited mostly to Dutch trading ships allowed in once a year and private Chinese vessels. This isolation was in direct resistance to European (particularly Portuguese) attempts at colonization. By avoiding the economic and religious domination from foreign powers experienced by so many of the neighboring countries in East Asia, Japan underwent a cultural refinement almost unprecedented in world history. Despite (or possibly because of) near-constant civil warfare; the Japanese took a culture and cuisine largely borrowed from China and Korea and created something wholly unique. In the 1850′s; American gunboats forced the Japanese to open their harbors to foreign trade. The rapid mixing of modern industrial society with that of a country sequestered within an idiosyncratic feudal culture had longstanding historical and cultural ramifications ranging from World War II to tentacle rape. Free trade brought in new dishes which the Japanese began to develop a taste for like curry, spaghetti and tomato sauce and breaded pork cutlets. These days Japanese cuisine is loaded with borrowed dishes that, while only about a century and a half old, are intrinsic comfort food to the Japanese.
Nikujaga is one of the most accessible examples of this kind of proto-fusion cuisine. Literally meaning “meat and potatoes”; nikujaga is simple to make, delicious on a cold day and easily adaptable to whatever variations you feel like making.
Here’s what you need to serve about 8 people:
- 1 1/2 LBS Short Ribs, Bones removed (Sliced or Ground Beef will suffice)
- 2 large White Onions (sliced into rings)
- 4 large Baking Potatoes (Peeled and cut into large chunks)
- 1/2 LB Carrots (scrubbed and sliced into 1″ lengths)
- 1 oz Dried Shitake Mushrooms (rinsed)
- 1 1/2 Cups Sugar
- 1 Cup Mirin*
- 3/4 Cup Tamari or Light Soy Sauce
- 1/2 Cup Dark Soy Sauce
- Short Grain Japanese Rice
- Sliced Scallions
- Shichimi Togarashi (optional)
Check and see how the broth tastes. Too salty? Add more sugar. Too sweet? Add some salt. Too bland? More soy sauce. Meanwhile, drink some sake.
You should be all set. Is your rice cooked? The short-grain sushi rice?
You better get on that.
Ladle the stew into bowls. Top with a big scoop of rice. Garnish with the scallions and if you want some spice; the Shichimi Togarashi.
Enjoy the benefits of cultural apropriation.