Authentic Recipe for Nikujaga, or Japanese Beef Stew

Takeaways:

  • Nikujaga contains beef, onions, potatoes, assorted vegetables, and a soy-sauce based broth.
  • It is a home-style recipe considered “comfort food” by many Japanese people.
  • This dish appeals to the Western palate, making it an excellent starter dish in Japanese cooking.

Did You Know:

Nikujaga was adapted from an English beef stew recipe, then modified to appeal more to Japanese tastes in the late 19th century.

Japanese Home-Style Cooking

A little-publicized component of Japanese cuisine is home-style; the food commonly prepared for one’s family. The Japanese word for this kind of food is “ofukuro no aji,” literally “mother’s taste”. Or, as we would say in English: just like my mother used to make. And, as in many countries around the world, this food occupies a special place in the Japanese consciousness.

Izumi-sensei, an energetic woman who liked to call herself my “Japanese grandmother” while I was living in Japan, shared several of her family’s favorite recipes with me. The first dish we prepared together was nikujaga. It remains a favorite, especially when introducing skeptical friends to Japanese cooking. Having served this dish to even quite finicky eaters, I have never received less than positive responses. As an unpretentious middle ground between distinctively Japanese and more familiar Western fare, it enjoys almost universal appeal.

The name offers a clue to the contents. “Niku” means “meat” and “jaga” is a shortened form of “jagaimo”: aka “potatoes”. Yes, meat and potatoes! It was adapted from English beef stew recipes in the late 19th century. But, as is common with adopted practices, the expression of the dish changed to appeal more to the Japanese palate. The most noticeable difference is the somewhat sweet-salty broth containing soy sauce and sugar.

This is an excellent recipe for those who are attempting weight loss or simply want a healthy, delicious meal with reasonable calorie content. Customize the recipe by adding more vegetables and less meat and potatoes if you would like to reduce the calories further. The broth is what really pulls the dish together; the other ingredients always vary widely from family to family anyway.

Nikujaga (Japanese Beef Stew)

? lb. Beef, sliced thin and cut into bite-size pieces (ask someone at the meat counter to slice a roast as thin as possible – or just use stew meat, but the stew meat won’t soak up as much flavor.)
3 potatoes, peeled and cut into fourths
1 onion, cut into eighths
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 Tbsp sugar
1Tbsp soy sauce (I like Kikkoman, it’s much closer to Japanese-style soy sauce than La Choy)
1 tsp salt
1 cup water
1/3 cup peas, sliced carrots, or other colorful, bite-size vegetable

Heat the vegetable oil in a soup pot and fry the beef, onion, and potatoes until the beef is cooked thoroughly. Add the water, then the sugar, soy sauce, and salt. Bring to a boil; skim off any fat floating on the surface using a wooden spoon. Add the vegetables and simmer 20-25 minutes. Enjoy hot.