Itadakimasu! – 牛丼 Gyudon
When we were in Tokyo for the first time back in 2009, everything was literally a culture shock for us, despite having prepped up for it a couple of months before that with internet research and guidebook reading. Although both being very built-up Asian cities with a strong urban infrastructure, Singapore and Tokyo are vastly different. So almost everything was interesting, intriguing, puzzling to the point of being bewildering. This perpetuated through every aspect of our brief glimpse into the lives of the Tokyo people. It starts with the morning mad rush at JR Shinjuku station, where everyone moved with such fast pace in a concerted clock-work fashion, yet with immensely high levels of artistry and rapport no one knocks into each other. Yet the peak hour trains are so jam packed, the train companies need to call upon a special “task force” employed specifically to nudge and push passengers onto the trains to make sure that everyone gets to work on time. This is when being squished and squashed, jostled and pushed is inevitable! There are times when the trains are so congested it seems like in comparison, sardines in a can could breathe better! A world of ironies…
Yet at night Shinjuku transforms into a totally different world, a complete paradigm shift and reveals its Mr Hyde. Along the streets of Kabukicho, Ni-chome and San-chome lie every thinkable ounce of carnal pleasure and worldly decadence. Sex shops, pornography parlours, izakayas, nightclubs, gay bars, sleazy saunas… bearing strong and powerful juxtaposition to the buddhist temples and shinto shrines we’d visited in the daytime.
The food culture in Tokyo was also quite intriguing. We are accustomed to buying canned drinks and occasionally packets of snacks or snicker bars from vending machines over here. Yet in Japan, practically everything, from a fresh organically grown apple, to a hentai soiled panty could be peddled in vending machines! More commonly, vending machines in Tokyo serve a greater purpose. One could order a meal through vending machines placed outside an F&B establishment, and customise everything in accordance to one’s preference from adding of toppings on a ramen, ordering an additional side dish, to upgrading a miso jiru to a ton jiru that goes with the 牛丼 Gyudon. This saves the hassle of the already busy shop staff who could now concentrate on handling the food and not the money!
Gyudon is very commonly found in Tokyo and possibly throughout Japan. It is popular food, it is comfort food and most importantly, it is convenient food, with an outlet literally outside every train, subway or metro station， usually from one of the three largest gyudon chains in Japan, i.e. 松屋Matsuya, 吉野屋 Yoshinoya and すき屋 Sukiya. Most, if not all of them have a vending machine placed outside the shop, where the diner simply follows the instructions listed on the panel to make the selection, pays the money, takes the printout card and hands it over to the shop staff. Since gyudon is always pre-fabricated in a large pot beforehand, one is served almost immediately after sitting down. Fast food a la Japonais!
Despite the convenience of eating out at these gyudon food chains, it is incredibly easy to prepare the dish at home as well, making it one of the staples cooked in every Japanese household. You simply needs to prepare a large pot of it, a pot of rice cooked and kept warm in the cooker to go along with the beef and you have a convenient dinner for the entire household who couldn’t afford the time to sit down for a meal together. A scoop of rice into a bowl and ladle full of the cooked beef and onion mixture with all the toppings and there you have it… instant gratification!
The choice of beef is actually secondary for gyudon. But do go for a cut which is marbled, i.e. with a good amount of fat. It is the fat that renders all the flavour into the sauce that makes this dish tasty. To have the beef sliced as thinly as possible, simply freeze the beef chunk for 1-2 hours until it is firm but not completely frozen. And working with a well sharpened knife helps too. If not, many Asian supermarkets carry thinly sliced beef for すき焼き sukiyaki or しゃぶしゃぶ shabu shabu. Those are most definitely good to go for gyudon!
The beef slices are first lightly sauteed to render some of the fat, which is then used to cook the onions before pouring in the seasoning concoction made of the standard items like mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine), ryori sake (Japanese rice wine for cooking), shoyu (soya sauce) and zatou (sugar). Proportions can vary based on personal preference. What is provided is basically a guideline so feel free to adjust it to your own individual liking.
The browned beef slices are then returned to the pan and simmered with the onion and sauce concoction for a while more before being ladled over and enjoyed with a bowl of piping hot rice!
Traditionally, gyudon is eaten with an egg cracked over the top and everything mixed together before digging in. This practice is improvised from the conventional way of enjoying sukiyaki where the cooked beef slices are dipped in a small bowl of beaten egg before slurping it all down. For this, be sure to use pasteurised eggs to avoid any risk of contamination.
A small selection of toppings are sprinkled over the beef slices to further add dimension to the flavours. These usually include Kizami shoga or beni shoga (pickled ginger), shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven-spice seasoning powder) and chopped negi (spring onions). So do have them ready for a truely authentic gyudon experience!
牛丼 Gyudon Recipe (serves 3-4)
400-500g beef, thinly sliced
1 large white or yellow onion (or 2 medium onions), peeled and sliced into narrow wedges
1-2 tbsp cooking oil
200 ml of dashi stock or water
Seasoning (to be mixed together)
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp dark soya sauce (Koikiuchi shoyu)
1 tbsp light soya sauce (Usukuchi shoyu)
2 tbsp mirin
2 tbsp cooking sake
Beni shoga or Kizami shoga
4 raw eggs (optional)
To a deep saucepan, add cooking oil and saute beef slices until brown (about 1 min). Dish up and set aside.
To the same saucepan, add sliced onions and saute until the onions start to soften slightly (1-2 min). Add seasoning mixture and stir fry the onions in it. At this point, use a wooden spatula to nudge and deglaze any caramelised parts at the bottom of the pan from the browned beef.
Return beef to the pan and stir fry until beef is evenly coloured with seasoning. Add dashi stock or water, cover and simmer for 1-2 min. Uncover lid and stir-fry quickly to evaporate away most of the liquids to concentrate the sauce. Taste and adjust with seasoning at this stage.
Ladle cooked beef over bowls of piping hot rice. Make a small indentation in the middle of the beef in each bowl and cracked an raw egg over it.
Top with beni shoga and sprinkle some chopped negi and shichimi togarashi over the beef and egg.