Itadakimasu! – 肉じゃが Nikujaga
肉じゃが Nikujaga is a Japanese dish which I got to know only around 2 years back, during our trip to Kansai. Compared to many other popular dishes like agedashi tofu, ebi tempura and tori karaage, nikujaga came really late. I remembered that it was part of the 鰻丼定食 “unadon teishoku” which I’d ordered in a small family restaurant in downtown Kyoto. The original intentions then was to visit an old unadon restaurant which was reputably very good. We had some trouble locating the unadon speciality shop actually and when we finally gotten round to it, the prices for a decent meal there was prohibitive to say the least. Luckily, there was another family restaurant located just diagonally on the other side of the street which also served unadon. Prices for a set meal was only a fraction of what we would have paid at the other shop but we were famished, tired and in dire need to be fueled and watered. The Japanese restaurants we’d had so far have yet to disappoint us. Even the least motivating place we’d dined in was at least decent. So it was a family operated restaurant and that alone told us that it would be disappointing.
My unadon teishoku came with several side dishes and Nikujaga was one of them. We knew most of the other dishes, tori karaage, dashiyaki tamago etc. then but just not nikujaga. It was rather puzzling as the dish tasted so “normal”. Don’t get me wrong. It is a very homely dish, something which my mother would have whipped up for us, so simple, down-to-earth yet so flavourful. Nothing fanciful and resounding but no less gratifying to enjoy. A peek at the menu again and it was basically “肉じゃが”, which literally meant “meat and potatoes”. Can’t be more literal than that, can we?
The ingredients are so simple for this dish. The main ingredients are carrots, potatoes, onions and thinly sliced beef or pork. Basically a very homely meat stew of some sort
One of the interesting ingredients used is 白滝 shirataki which literally means “white waterfall”. Made essentially our of konnyaku, it is not difficult to figure out the reasons behind the name. I love shirataki for its resilient crunch and did I tell you that it is practically calorie-free?
The cooking process is also fairly straight forward and despite being a stew, the cooking time is not terribly long as the meat slices used should be really thin and thus do not require much over-the-stove time. Having said that, the flavours develop upon prolonged stewing or leaving it overnight to make it taste better on the next day!
But if prolonged stewing is desired, choose a variety of potato that is suited for that. Soft varieties like Russet would probably disintegrate too much.
Nikujaga 肉じゃが Recipe (serves 4-6）, adapted from Keiko Ishida’s “Step By Step Cooking Japanese”
500g thinly sliced pork (can be replaced with beef)
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into large chunks
2-4 potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 large onion, peeled and cut into thin wedges along the grain
1 packet of shirataki, rinsed
100g sugar snaps, deveined (can be replaced with french beans or snow peas)
1-2 tbsp of cooking oil
Seasoning (combined in a bowl and set aside)
1 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tbsp mirin
1 1/2 tbsp cooking sake
1 tbsp light soya sauce (Usukuchi shoyu)
1 tbsp dark soya sauce (Koikuchi shoyu)
500 ml hot water or dashi stock (or as needed)
In a wok or deep cooking pot, add oil over high heat and add wedged onions and sliced pork and stir-fry for 1 min or so until pork turns pale.
Pour seasoning mixture over pork and onions, mix thoroughly until all the ingredients are uniformly coated.
Add potatoes, carrot, shirataki and hot water/dashi stock until the ingredients are barely submerged. Mix around a little.
Cover with lid and simmer for 10-15 min.
Remove lid and allow mixture to simmer for another 5 min to evaporate away excess moisture.
Taste test the gravy and adjust flavours with more seasoning according to personal preference.
Add sugar snaps and cook for another min or so
Remove from heat, transfer to serving bowl and serve hot with rice.
NOTE: Traditionally, the potatoes are soaked in water after cutting to prevent discolouration as well as to rinse off any excess starch. I’d omitted this as I’d like the gravy to have a slightly thickened consistency from the starch from the potatoes.
I’d used 1 tbsp of light and dark soya sauce respectively for the flavour without darkening the ingredients too much. The colouration is similar to what I had in the small family restaurant in Kyoto. If a darker hue is preferred, simply use all dark soya sauce instead.
The sugar snaps or other peas are added only at the last instance, i.e. a min before serving. Do not cook the peas for too long or they may lose their crunch and also being discoloured. Otherwise, the peas can also be blanchd in boiling water and added only during serving. But I cooked them together with the rest of the ingredients to save the hassle.
The concoction of seasoning is in essence the same as that for gyudon. However, the latter has a slightly sweet edge owning to more sugar added. Nikujaga should taste more savory than sweet in principle. So do not add too much sugar. That said, Nikujaga is a very “homely” dish which all Japanese folks whip up regularly at home with great ease. Hence, the proportion of ingredients as well as flavour combinations may change slightly according to personal preference.