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Japan's original beef dish

Japan's original beef dish

February 13, 2017

Above: Eastern-style sukiyaki

When it comes to Japanese cuisine, there's one food that needs absolutely no introduction: sushi. In the last decade it has spread around the world, becoming a global phenomenon and a signature dish for the entire country. But it hasn't always been this way.

A generation ago, the idea of eating raw seafood was considered a couple of steps too far for many people from outside Japan. So this meant both sushi and sashimi were off the menu for visitors. But back in the day, there was another food that just about everyone wanted to try: sukiyaki.

There are several reasons why it was (and still is) so in demand. Firstly, the principal ingredient is meat–usually beef, but sometimes pork or chicken–cooked together with tofu, vegetables and other ingredients. At the same time, thanks to seasonings such as shoyu (soy sauce), sake and mirin (sweet rice liqueur), it was unlike any Western dish: the flavor was unmistakably Japanese.

But the taste for sukiyaki was fueled by another key factor: it is cooked in the middle of the table in a nabe (hot pot). As with other forms of nabe, everyone pitches in, serving themselves and others. Whether it's a family gathering at home, an informal office party or a more official get-together, it's always great fun.

Sukiyaki became so widely identified with Japan that it had a hugely popular song named after it. In fact, Kyu Sakamoto's 1961 anthem has nothing to do with the dish, or any other kind of food. Its real name in Japanese is “Ue wo Muite Aruko” or “Walk with Your Head Held High.” But thanks to its new name, it became a hit outside of Japan, topping the charts in 1963 in the US, Canada and Norway, as well as in Sakamoto's homeland.

Sukiyaki east and west

Above: Kansai-style sukiyaki

Although sukiyaki is now well known abroad, within Japan there are actually two distinct versions–one that is popular in Tokyo and Kanto (eastern Japan), and a rather different recipe that developed in Kansai, the region around Osaka in western Japan.

In Kanto, a sweet-savory broth is prepared by mixing soy sauce, sugar and mirin with dashi stock. Known as warishita, this cooking sauce is first heated up in a shallow metal pan. Then the meat, tofu, vegetables and other ingredients are added and all simmered together until they are ready to eat. It is this way of cooking and the warishita sauce that characterize the Kanto style of sukiyaki.

In the Kansai version, the meat is first heated in the sukiyaki pot, and when it is almost cooked, it is seasoned with sugar, sake and soy sauce. Finally, the vegetables and other ingredients are added until they too are cooked.

While there are also some variations in the kind of vegetables and meat used, the standard ingredients tend to include negi (Japanese leek), shiitake mushrooms, yakidofu (a firm variant of tofu that has been seared on the outside), and shirataki (konnyaku noodles). Other favorite additions include hakusai (Chinese or napa cabbage), shungiku (edible chrysanthemum leaf) and enoki or maitake mushrooms.

And there is one other crucial point that just about everyone in Japan seems to agree on. Once the meat is cooked, before you eat it you should dip it into a “sauce” of beaten raw egg.

Overturning an old taboo

Sukiyaki does not have a very long history in Japan. It developed in the late 19th century, following Japan’s opening to the West. Before that, meat was rarely eaten in Japan, apart from wild game caught in the hills. Beef in particular had long been considered taboo, both for religious reasons and because oxen were very valuable as work animals.

However, the opening of the first treaty ports, including Yokohama (eastern Japan) and Kobe (close to Osaka), led to the introduction of Western culture. Following the upheaval of the Meiji Restoration, an era of “civilization and enlightenment” was proclaimed–and an integral part of that new, modern way of life was adopting a more Western diet.

The watershed moment came in 1872 when the Emperor himself celebrated the new year by eating meat. Given this imperial precedent, more Japanese began to develop a taste for meat, and new recipes evolved.

In Yokohama, a popular cooking style was gyu-nabe (beef hot pot). Large chunks of the meat were simmered in a broth seasoned with miso or soy sauce, like other forms of nabe. This became the forerunner of the modern Kanto style of sukiyaki.

Meanwhile, in western Japan, the dish evolved differently. The meat was cooked directly on the metal of the pans before being simmered. The name sukiyaki is thought to derive from the word “suki" meaning “plow” or “farm spade” with the word “yaki" (to “grill” or “sear”). Supposedly, this connection dates back to earlier times, when country people would heat up their metal blades over wood fires, to cook whatever wild animals or birds they caught.

Party food

A century ago, beef was too expensive for most Japanese to eat on a regular basis. Visits to sukiyaki restaurants were kept for celebrations and other special occasions–in much the same way as people go out to eat a fancy French meal nowadays.

Even today, sukiyaki is far from everyday fare. It is party food, and an excuse for people to get together, especially in winter. In recent years, many families have begun incorporating sukiyaki into their New Year festivities, alongside–or even in place of–the traditional osechi ryori dishes.

Nothing is more convivial than sitting around the communal hot pot, sharing the food and the warmth with family, friends or colleagues.

Text: Robbie Swinnerton

See also
#5 Pleased to Meat You: Beef in Japan
#53 New Year and Osechi Ryori