Last updated on November 18th, 2016
Written and photographed by Lisa Shoreland
If anything could shake news of the popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and now Bahrain off the front page, it was the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami in Japan.
I was lucky—my home and family members are in southern Japan in Hiroshima Prefecture, far from the epicenter and subjected to little more than media panic and a few inches of higher water. Still, some of my friends weren’t so lucky; a number of them have family in Sendai from whom they haven’t heard in days.
The weekend was nevertheless a nightmare for me. I lived in Japan for 19 years before attending college in the U.S. and graduating with a degree in creative writing. I now live as a freelance writer in the States, always quietly longing for Japan—and oh, absolutely yes, the food.
After finding out that my family was largely unaffected by the quake and spending the weekend bawling my eyes out at the pictures of devastated villages, I decided it was time to get out of my swamp of used tissues and do something happy. Now, more than ever, I needed some nikujaga.
Nikujaga translates to meat and potatoes. It’s basically a stew with meat, potatoes, and anything else the cook wants, plus the soy- and mirin-based broth. It’s the quintessential comfort food of Japanese home cooking, and one of the things my mother knows to make me every time I scrounge up enough money to make a trip home. You can find it in many izakaya, or bars, usually served with a bowl of “sticky” white rice and miso soup.
Fun fact: It was invented by chefs in the Imperial Japanese Navy in the late 19th century in an attempt to mimic the beef stews served in the British Royal Navy. Both Kyoto (of Kyoto Prefecture) and Kure (of Hiroshima Prefecture) claim to be the home of this dish. Personally, I’ve got a soft spot for my hometown, but I couldn’t care less where the food historically came from, as long as it ends up in my stomach.
You can use ground beef for this recipe, but the Japanese typically use very thinly sliced varieties that are difficult to find in the States. You can try cutting lean beef into small cubes, freezing them, then grinding with a food processor or grinder attachment if storebought ground meat makes you uneasy.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Makes 4 servings
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon mirin
- 2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 4 potatoes
- 1 onion
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1/2 pound beef
- cooked rice, for accompaniment
- shiitake mushrooms
- konnyaku, otherwise known as konjac or devil’s tongue (you’ll have to go to an Asian market for this one)
That’s the basic recipe. Although I was short on ingredients this last time, I generally add the following to add more variety and nutrients to the stew:
Whisk the sugar, mirin, and soy sauce in a small bowl until the sugar is fully dissolved.
Scrub the potatoes, but keep the skins on for their nutrients. Cut into bite-sized cubes and place them in a bowl of water for 5 minutes.
Slice the onions into 1/2-inch strips and toss them with the sesame oil in a cast-iron skillet or wok over high heat. Saute until oil is thoroughly dispersed.
Push the onions to the edges of the pan, and add the beef to the center of the pan. Pour the bowl of sugar, mirin, and soy sauce over the beef and mix in. Once the meat starts to brown, stir in the onions.
Drain the potatoes, reserving the water, and add the potatoes to the pan, along with any additional vegetables (if using). Pour in 1 1/2 cups of the reserved potato water. Cover and and cook for 10 minutes, turning ingredients over once.
Once the potatoes are soft and you can’t really stop drooling over the skillet, serve in shallow bowls with a scoop of rice.