Merry Christmas Foodies! This is my holiday season gift to our readers. It’s a recipe and I think a pretty good one!
This is a classic Japanese home cooking dish: nikujaga. Nikujaga is based on Western beef stew and I have tried to give a novel Kyoto taste to it. This autumn I have been trying to perfect it and I must say that I am proud of this one. Please give it a try and enjoy!
Get a Kyoto Foodie Present! Please see the end of this article for details.
KyotoFoodie’s Original Kyoto-style Nikujaga with Wagyu Beef Tendon and Kakushi Aji
Nikujaga (肉じゃが) was invented by cooks in the Japanese Navy and is based on beef stew. Niku means meat, as in beef, and jaga (jagaimo) is potato. Nikujaga is now a very popular home cooking dish in Japan. The main ingredients for nikujaga are thin sliced beef, potato, carrot and onion. These typical beef stew ingredients are then simmered in a Japanese style broth of sweet sake and soy sauce.
Beef Tendon: I decided that I wanted to use a non-roast cut of beef for this recipe and decided on fatty tendon. In Japan, beef tendon is popular simmered in sweetened soy sauce and sake. After it is well cooked it is pleasantly ‘mochi-mochi’, or mochi-like in texture. If tendon is undercooked it is just rubbery. After thoroughly cooked it is pleasantly chewy, but more gooey like mochi than rubbery. This cut of meat is called called suji niku in Japanese, literally ‘tendon meat’. This is not just tendon, it is tendon with some meat and fat. Properly prepared, tendon is really good! Give it a try.
Hidden Taste: Next I wanted to add a little non-conventional taste and kakushi aji, or hidden taste. The kakushi aji is cinnamon. Why cinnamon? Cinnamon has been used for centuries to flavor Kyoto’s ubiquitous confection called yatsuhashi that no one in Kyoto actually eats. Today, yatsuhashi is mainly purchased by junior high school students as omiyage when they come to Kyoto on their school excursion. In true kakushi aji fashion, I wanted the cinnamon taste to be there and noticeable but not prominent enough to catch right away as cinnamon.
I was a bit inspired for this recipe by watching Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection series. This is my perfect Kyoto-style Nikujaga. For the early stages of this dish, I also referred to a recipe in a ‘quick and easy’ type cookbook (村田吉弘の10分でできる和のおかず) that I bought at Kikunoi some years ago written by Chef Yoshihiro Murata. (Mainly the microwaving of potatoes part.)
Here is what it looks like:
You might notice a few things in the photo that are not on the beef stew list of ingredients above. I wanted to add a few non-traditional things; two are ‘Kyoto’ and one isn’t. The ingredients are:
Aburaage: Deep fried tofu used to make the wrapping for Kyoto’s inarizushi.
Yaki Fu: Wheat gluten that has been baked. Various preparations of fu are an important part of Kyoto cuisine.
Kampyo: Kampyo is strips of dried gourd that are most commonly found in sushi rolls.
These three ingredients absorb that flavors of the broth and add contrasting textures.
One last ingredient is ito konnyaku, or threads of konnyaku jelly. Ito konnyaku is often used in nikujaga. While it doesn’t have a lot of taste on its own, it gives an additional contrast of textures.
There is some authentic Kyoto-style philosophical discussion regarding the dashi broth, but lets talk tendon first.
Preparing the Suji Niku Beef Tendon
While it is possible to find just beef tendon in Japan I prefer the part that is a mix of thinner tendon, meat and a bit of fat. It needs more time to cook than the vegetable so I cook it twice before adding the veggies. Sometimes this wagyu suji niku can be quite fatty, the tendon in the photos here is not very fatty though.
I start by boiling the suji niku in salt water for about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the tendon. I am mainly doing this to remove fat, but not the flavor. After giving it a good boil I pour off the water and rinse the suji niku with hot water in a colander and allow to cool. Once cool enough to handle I cut it into bite sized portions and put it in a wok or frying pan. I cover the meat with sake or cooking sake (ryorishu), cover (and use a wooden otoshibuta if you have one) and cook covered over high heat. I cook it down until all the sake is evaporated and I can hear the oil from the meat sizzling in the pan and then remove from heat.
The Other Ingredients
The other ingredients don’t require much preparation. Cut the kampyo strips into bite sized pieces. Simply drain and rinse the konnyaku and quickly rinse the kampyo and yaki fu in hot water and then place in the dashi broth to reconstitute. The before slicing the aburaage, place in a colander in the sink and slowly pour a pot of boiling water over it to wash any remaining oil from the deep frying process.
The Dashi Dilemma: Clear Soup or Stew
In Kyoto, dashi soup broth is very serious business. Many traditionalists say that (clear) soup is the climax of the meal and even just pretty good Kyoto restaurants make their dashi from scratch every morning. Some fanatical restaurants make it 3 times a day! It is said to lose its freshness after just a few hours. Dashi is the basis of many classic dishes. At Kichisen I was amazed to learn that they cook their sushi rice in dashi! (They don’t really even serve sushi to guests. But when they make sushi, they use their $5 a cup dashi to cook the rice!)
The typical nikujaga usually has a light broth but I decided to go with a more gravy or stew-like consistency (I live in Kyoto, but I am from “out on the edge of the prairie“), I also wanted to make it with the traditional kastuo dashi — and a little inspiration from Heston Blumenthal! (See this video, 4:02, potato skin infusion.)
Thanks to Heston, I decided to develop a ‘potato dashi’, I call it jaga dashi. While jaga dashi may not be ‘Kyoto’ in taste, I think that it is sufficiently ‘crazy about dashi’ to be authentically ‘Kyoto’.
First I simmer the potato skins in katsuo dashi, this infuses the dashi with the most flavorful part of the potato. Also, I overcooked about 1/3 of the potatoes in the microwave and then dissolve them into the jaga dashi to thicken the consistency and add even more flavor. About the katsuo dashi, I never use the chemical powdered stuff. I use the dashi packs that contain all the ingredients that go into proper dashi, these ingredients are just ground and put into a tea bag. Making authentic dashi from scratch is just not something done in home cooking now, leave that to the masters. Dashi packs are a reasonable compromise between ‘chemical’ and ‘from scratch’.
After cooking, most of this jaga dashi will be absorbed into the vegetables and meat, but making it more soupy would surely be yummy too. Just add more sake!
Cooking: Simmering the Stew
The peeled potatoes should be pre-cooked in the microwave oven for about 5 minutes. Saute the reconstituted fu and kampyo, konnyaku, aburaage slices and onion with suji niku and remaining oil. Saute covered over high heat for several minutes and until browned slightly.
Next come the sliced potatoes and carrots, chuck them in and then add the jaga dashi and ‘top off’ pan with sake or cooking sake. Most cooking sake has lots of salt added to it so that it can be sold in grocery stores. You want to use seishu (clear sake) if at all possible. Just buy the cheapest sake you can find but make sure it is seishu and not synthetic (goseishu). It has been said that I use an insane amount of sake when I simmer this dish.
After you have drowned all the ingredients in sake turn up the heat. I prefer to use a Chinese style wok instead of the typical Western-style stew pot because I don’t want to stir the nikujaga while it is cooking. Stirring will break the potatoes.
Next you add the cinnamon and tare (soy sauce, mirin, sugar, salt and probably some more sake).
My Perfect Nikujaga Served
Kyoto-style Nikujaga Recipe
This recipe will make at least 10 servings and like any stew, nikujaga tastes even better as leftovers. Just half the ingredients if you want to make less. When I make a large portion like this I use less sugar, salt and soy sauce as it is more healthy. The recipe below you may find bland. I think that you could double the amount of mirin, soy sauce and sugar and add another teaspoon or so of cinnamon to rev up the flavor. If I were doing this recipe for guests or for just one meal, I would definitely use more sugar and soy sauce. Try this as your base and then taste and adjust as you cook.
- 500 g beef
- 1.5 k potato
- 1-2 onions
- 3-4 carrots
- 1 cup sliced aburaage (deep fried tofu)
- 1/2 – 1 cup konnyaku (thin sliced or ito konnyaku)
- 30 g kampyo (dried gourd strips, unbleached if possible)
- 1 liter water
- 2 katsuo dashi packs
- skins from peeled potatos
- 1/3 of the potatoes, well microwaved and lightly crushed with fork.
- dried kombu kelp (optional)
700 ml – 1 liter of cheap sake (this much ryorishu with salt will ruin the stew)
- 2 teaspoons of cinnamon
- 200 ml sake or cooking sake (ryorishu)
- 100-150 ml Japanese shoyu soy sauce (not thick koikuchi)
- 200 ml mirin (sweet sake)
- 1/4 – 1/2 cup sugar
- salt (pinch)
Ingredients: Peel the potatoes and cut into quarters or eighths depending on size, then cover in a bowl and cook in a microwave oven until about half-done. Use about 1/3 of the potatoes for another round of microwaving, cook well. The overcooked potatoes will be used to thicken the jaga dashi.
Peel and slice the carrots and onions.
Drain and rinse the konnyaku. Cut the kampyo into bite sized strips and rinse with hot water with the baked fu and then reconstitute in jaga dashi.
Pour boiling water over aburaage and cut into strips after cooling.
If necessary boil the beef once to remove excess fat. (See above for details if you are using tendon. If you are using roast or similar cut, this step is probably not necessary.) If using tendon or other tough cut of beef, simmer in sake.
Dashi: Simmer about 1 liter of water with several katsudashi packs and the peeled skins from the potatoes. After 20 minutes remove dashi packs and potato skins. Gently mash the over-microwaved potato slices and add to dashi and simmer covered for about 20 minutes.
Saute the beef with other ingredients except potato and carrot until lightly browned then add the jaga dashi. Next add the potatoes and carrots and fill pan with sake until all ingredients are covered and bring to a gentle boil.
Tare: Over a low flame, heat the tare ingredients gently until sugar is dissolved.
Simmer the over medium heat and add tare and cinnamon. Use a ladle to mix the tare with the dashi well. Avoid stirring to not break the potatoes. Cover with foil, leaving a small hole for steam to escape. Simmer and reduce dashi to a thick gravy-like consistency.
Flavor Balance and Kakushi Aji
Either a thick gravy or a light broth for this recipe would be nice, I think. The amount of salt and soy sauce is very important, so do like real chefs do and taste as you go. You can always add more but you can’t take it away.
The most important point in the recipe for me is the cinnamon. I want it to be a hidden taste. I want the person eating it to say, Uh, what is this? I know this taste but I can’t quite place it. If they say something like; Wow, cinnamon flavored stew, that’s interesting. Then, I think have used too much cinnamon.
Help Spread Kyoto Culinary Culture and Get a Present from Kyoto Foodie! If you make and adapt this recipe and publish it on your blog, I will send you box Kyoto foodie goodies. (If a lot of people do it, I think I will have to choose just a few winners and not send everyone a prize.) Send a trackback and/or comment with a link to your nikujaga! Be daring!
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