Nikijuga: A Heavenly Japanese Dish in a Bowl

A Brief Background on the Japanese Dish Called Nikujaga: Japanese Style Beef Stew

Japanese dishes are undoubtedly well-loved all over the world. They have a wide selection of mouth-watering dishes that are truly a feast for anyone’s taste buds. Usually, the more popular dishes are sushi, ramen, katsudon, yakitori, and the like. However, there are so much more undiscovered Japanese dishes that have great potential. A relatively unheard of the dish in most parts of the world is the nikujaga - it is a simple Japanese dish that is easy to prepare, yet extremely delicious.

To understand what Nikujaga is, it is important to translate first what the name means. In Japanese language, Nikujaga is a contraction between two words: niku and jagaimo. The meaning of niku is simple, it simply means “meat”. On the other hand, jagaimo means “potatoes”. Judging by that name, it is safe to assume that this dish is a combination of meat and potatoes.

While the base of nikujaga is always made up of meat and potatoes, however, there are quite a few variations of ingredients that could be added to the dish. After all, the Japanese are quite known for their use of vegetables in many dishes. Depending on the person cooking, the nikujaga may contain carrots and other traditional vegetables.

An interesting thing about nikujaga is the fact that it is literally a marriage of eastern and western culture. Its significance in Japanese culture and history is important as it is part of an important period in time, prior to the World War 2.

The origin of nikujaga is interestingly tied to the Japanese military. To this day, it is still being affiliated to its roots in the military, having been discovered by a prominent Japanese Admiral - Admiral Togo. At the time when Japan engaged in battles with neighboring nations such as Korea, China, and Russia, the military was highly respected. One of the most prominent military men of his time happened to be Admiral Togo.

It is truly interesting how the man who was responsible for defeating Russia and putting them on their feet is also the man responsible for the dish that the present day Japanese love. Japan’s battle with Russia is extremely significant as it was considered as a major war at the time as both cultures clashed - with one believing that their race is superior to the other.

The Japanese, who had an extreme sense of nationalism was not one to accept defeat, and they fought as hard as they can to keep up with the other countries who wanted to colonize Japan. Coming from centuries of isolation, it was a challenge for Japan to modernize and keep up with the bigger, more advanced nations to colonize them. However, they were ultimately successful in their goal.

Adapting foreign ideologies soon took over a lot of the Japanese’ life. The kimonos that were commonly worn by most of the Japanese in their day to day lives shifted to modern, Western-inspired garb. The Japanese started assimilating to the English language, however, they ultimately stuck to speaking in their native language. The Japanese military was sent to the United Kingdom to learn battle techniques from the Royal Navy who at the time showed prowess as a super nation.

Among the myriad of Western concepts that found their way into the Japanese’ lives in cooking. Nikujaga, in particular, was inspired by the time the Japanese and British sailors trained together in joint naval exercises. It was during that time when Admiral Togo observed that the British consumed much more proteins and calories in their diet. In contrast, the Japanese’ diet was much simpler and lighter.

The creation of the nikujaga had an important role as well in representing the relations between the Japanese and the British. During the first years of their alliance, the relationship was harmonious - however, this has been strained a lot due to the presence of war. It was only years after the war when the British and the Japanese were able to successfully restore the foreign ties that they used to hold. Nevertheless, the dish nikujaga will forever serve as a representation and a reminder of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, during a difficult period in time.

Nikujaga Recipe: How To Make Your Own Nikujaga at Home

As mentioned in the earlier part of this article, cooking nikujaga is quite easy. One does not need to have Michelin star chef abilities to be able to successfully cook nikujaga, as anyone who has basic knowledge in ingredients and basic cooking techniques will be able to make it. It is a perfect, and hearty dish that is perfect for sharing with a group of friends. The recipe, in particular, which will be shared in the succeeding portions of this article will be good for around half a dozen people. It is adapted from Professor Tazawa’s book.

Prior to cooking, all of the ingredients must be prepared already. Since the dish is a form of beef stew, it is no surprise that the star ingredient is the beef. In order to serve half a dozen people, a good 350g of beef would be needed. Next to the beef would be the potatoes, which are also an important ingredient of nikujaga.

This recipe is quite basic, so only two vegetable types will accompany the beef and potatoes - three onions and a carrot. Lastly, the liquid part of the stew, which is a very thick sauce will be comprised of soy sauce, sugar, and sake. Usually, these ingredients can be adjusted freely so that the person cooking may easily adjust to his or her own taste preference.
Cooking the dish itself is quite easy. As a matter of first importance, the potatoes, carrots, and onions must be peeled and cut. The stew does not require any special cutting style for these, they can be cut in any way suitable for common stew dishes. Once the vegetables have been prepared, a cooking pot with a deeper base should be prepared with cooking oil.

In this step, the meat and the onions will be cooked very lightly in vegetable oil in a method similar to searing. This method will be done to the potatoes and carrots as well, however, those two ingredients cook much faster so they must be added only after some time. Once all the ingredients have been cooked lightly in the bowl, the next step would be to add water into the bowl.

This step must be done carefully. The water must not be too high, as it will be boiled. Boiling water will bubble, and filling the cooking pot with water up to the brim would mean water spilling out eventually. It would also be much harder to stir the pot when there is too much water. The best way to measure how much water must be added is to place it at a level only slightly higher than that of the ingredients combined.

Once the water starts showing signs of bubbling, it would signify that the water has reached its boiling point. This is now the time to add the base ingredients for the nikujaga sauce: the soy sauce, sugar, and the sake. At this point, the cooking pot can be abandoned to boil and cook the meat tenderly, as well as the potatoes and the carrots. It is good to use a level of heat that is not too high. Once the sauce has changed in color to a brown, it is a good indicator that the dish already ready for consumption.

After removing the dish from the fire, the cook is now free to taste the dish if it would already fit his or her standards. It is common to adjust the ingredients at this point, adding sugar, salt or soy sauce. Some also add dashi and shirataki to the sauce to make it tastier. The dish may now be served instantly, or refrigerated overnight to enable the flavors to strengthen further.

As a tip to those who are scared of cooking nikujaga for the first time, the internet is a wonderful goldmine of resources. For one, there are plenty of videos on YouTube which show a step by step process of cooking nikujaga. Of course, these cooking styles vary, but the basic method is there and it is up to the person who will be cooking on how he or she would want to execute.

Food Trip: Where to Eat The Best Nikujaga in Japan

The sad truth is that there is not a lot of Japanese restaurants, even in Japan, specializing in nikujaga. However, this is quite acceptable since common cuisines tend to focus on Japanese originating dishes such as the variations of don, the variations of  Yaki's, sashimis, sushi, and ramen. It is quite rare that something like a nikujaga would be the star attraction offered by a restaurant.

This does not, however, mean that it is purely impossible to taste good nikujaga when traveling to Japan. In parts of Kyoto, the dish was integrated as part of their local cuisine. The reason for such is because the nikujaga was actually invented in Kyoto, which used to be the home of the Japanese naval base. In a way, the nikujaga has already been integrated into their culture.