Nikujaga, which translates literally as ‘meat and potatoes’, is pure unadulterated comfort food; to many Japanese people it is a taste of home and the memory of mother’s cooking. This sweet, incredibly warming, wintery dish has an easy-to-trace heritage going back to the beef stew served by the British Royal Navy in the late 1800s, and one Japanese cadet who was sent to England to further his naval studies. Tōgō Heihachirō, who had achieved the rank of lieutenant before returning to Japan, had developed a fondness for the cuisine of his alma mater; describing the dish to the chefs of the Imperial Navy, he had them recreate its flavours using local ingredients and according to the story, nikujaga was born.
The key components of a classic British beef stew are still present- potatoes, carrots, onions and of course beef, although the latter being in a much smaller quantity than you would expect to find in the traditional version. The similarities end there though- the umami-rich cooking liquor being made up of the staple Japanese ingredients of soy sauce, sake, mirin and dashi fish stock and the addition of chewy, glass-like shirataki noodles to complete the dish. Like the original, nikujaga is the perfect simple and nostalgic meal to warm you up on a cold, wet winter’s day whichever side of the world you’re on.
- 250g thinly sliced beef
- 100g carrot
- 150g onion (we use a mix of regular onions and whole pearl onions)
- 600g small new potatoes
- 150g shirataki noodles
- 100g mangetout peas
- 125ml soy sauce
- 50ml sake
- 30ml mirin
- 30g sugar
- 125ml dashi broth
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- Wash the new potatoes, but don’t peel the skins- this ensures the potatoes don’t break down during the cooking time, and while not traditional, it gives the nikujaga more texture and flavour. Peel the onions and carrots then chop them into large chunks. Prepare the shirataki noodles by cooking them in a small saucepan of boiling water for one minute; drain the water off the noodles, then set them aside to add to the stew later.
- Next, pour the vegetable oil into a large frying pan and place over a medium heat; when the oil is hot, add the sliced beef and stir gently, allowing the meat to brown. When the beef has coloured all over, add the chopped onions and cook for a couple of minutes, until they have started to soften. Add the prepared shirataki noodles, carrots and potatoes, then pour in the soy sauce, sake, dashi, mirin and sugar, stirring well to combine. Place a drop lid on the pan and simmer the liquid over a low heat for thirty to forty minutes, adding a splash more dashi or water if necessary.
- When the carrots and potatoes are tender, remove the drop lid and place the mangetout peas on top of the stew; allow them to steam for three to four minutes, until just cooked, then stir to mix through the nikujaga.
- You can serve the stew right away- it’s great to eat it with some steamed Japanese rice- but it tastes even better if you leave it to cool then reheat it the following day.
Serves 4 people.