A Quintessential Japanese Meal

Loved by young and old alike, sukiyaki is one of Japan's quintessential dining experiences. It's often seen gracing the table on special occasions and livens up any party! The delicious harmony of salty-sweet sauce and savory ingredients has made sukiyaki a highly popular dish outside of Japan as well. Let's take look at why sukiyaki puts a smile on every face!

What is Sukiyaki?

Sukiyaki is a dish consisting of thinly sliced beef (slightly thicker than the slices for shabu-shabu) and other ingredients including Tokyo negi (large green onions similar to leeks, but with a long white portion), leafy vegetables such as shungiku and nappa cabbage, grilled firm tofu and shirataki (noodles made from the konjac, or devil's tongue, yam) which are simmered together in a soy sauce-sugar based sauce. Dipping the cooked ingredients in lightly beaten egg before eating is the typical way to eat sukiyaki. Methods of preparation, sauce and ingredients vary region to region, and while beef is usually the meat of choice, there are some areas which prefer pork or chicken.

History of Sukiyaki

Japan was heavily influenced by Buddhism, and from the Nara period (710-794) for a span of roughly 1200 years, meat-eating, especially livestock, was prohibited. Aside from the religious taboo on eating flesh, cattle were the main labor animals during that period, so eating them would have had a severe impact on the farming community; as a result, Japan had a long history of not eating beef. In 1549, however, missionaries from Europe arrived, preaching the word of western civilization, and interest in eating beef was sparked among some of the Japanese. However, it was only after the end of the Edo period (1868) that the practice of eating meat became popularized amongst the townspeople. After Japan opened its ports, there was an influx of meat and dairy eating foreigners who settled in port towns like Kobe and Yokohama, and as the traditional prohibitions regarding meat eating lessened for the Japanese, the demand for beef further increased.

The predecessor of sukiyaki, called gyunabe, or beef hotpot, was an immensely popular dish which consisted of cooking beef with Tokyo negi . Since the beef used in the early gyunabe, which was most likely not of the highest quality, tended to be tough with a strong smell, it was usually prepared with miso which both tenderized the meat and mitigated the odor. This was the start of the Japanization of western-style beef cuisine. As better quality beef became available, the method of cooking it with other vegetables than Tokyo negi along with tofu, shirataki, etc. all simmered together in a soy sauce-sugar based sauce ushered in the sukiyaki boom throughout Japan. In literature from 1871, there is mention that Japanese people, regardless of age, gender or financial status, were all wild about sukiyaki and that at that time it was the hottest of trends that could not even compare to our gourmet food booms nowadays!

Sukiyaki Trivia

* It's said that the name "sukiyaki" originated in the Kansai area of Japan (the south-central part of the main island Honshu). In 1923, the Kansai style of the dish was introduced to the Kanto area (located north-east of Kansai, Kanto includes Greater Tokyo and seven nearby prefectures). Changes were made to gyunabe in that now meat and vegetables were simmered in sauce, and thus the Kanto style of sukiyaki was born. In Kansai, sukiyaki is made by first partially cooking the meat, adding the sauce, and finally the vegetables; Kanto style first heats the sauce in the pan, then all the ingredients are added at the same time and cooked together. The sauce also varies—in Kanto style it is called warishita—mirin and fish stock are often added to the soy sauce, sugar and sake blend which makes up the typical Kansai sauce.

*It's common to dip the cooked ingredients in raw egg prior to eating in both Kansai and Kanto regions, although this custom originated in Kansai. It seems like doing so was not only to add a bit of complimentary mellow flavor, but also to cool down the steaming hot ingredients a bit before putting them into one's mouth!

*The reason that most sukiyaki pans are made of cast iron is because for the following reasons it is extremely well suited to sukiyaki cooking! Cast iron 1) has excellent heat conductivity, assuring uniform heating and even cooking, 2) allows for caramelization of the meat and vegetables without burning and sticking, 3) seasons easily and well, imparting an additional layer of flavor to the ingredients and 4) holds heat for an extended period of time.

*Since chilled meat doesn't cook evenly and tends to stiffen up during the cooking process, it's recommended that sukiyaki meat be taken out of the fridge and brought to room temperature about 30 minutes prior to cooking.

*The tofu used for sukiyaki is firm tofu that has been grilled, so it has tasty looking grill marks on the surface. It's ideal for sukiyaki since it absorbs all the flavors of the dish without falling apart during cooking.

*Shirataki (and other konjac products) should be nestled in with the vegetables instead of directly next to the meat (a slight, harmless discoloration with no effect on taste might occur).

* While beef might be the most commonly used meat for sukiyaki, pork, chicken, or fish such as salmon, mackerel, yellowtail and others are delicious as well! And in addition to the standard veggies, sliced onions, potatoes, tomatoes, bamboo shoots, watercress, burdock root, taro, daikon, lettuce, cabbage, bean sprouts, peppers, carrots, broccoli, etc. are all popular additions to your sukiyaki!

Here at Marukai we have superior quality deliciously marbled Japanese wagyu direct from Japan, top quality American Kobe beef and flavorful kurobuta pork for sukiyaki, along with grilled tofu and all the vegetables you need! We also have convenient ready-made sukiyaki sauce, table-top stoves, sukiyaki pans, and fine Japanese sake and shochu to savor with your dinner! What better dish to take the lingering chill off of these early spring evenings?