There are two dishes that can be translated as “hamburger” in Japan. One is the all-American favorite, a beef patty sandwiched in a bun, which in Japanese is called hanbāgā. The other kind is similar to a Hamburg steak or Salisbury steak, made with chopped onions, breadcrumbs and egg mixed with the ground meat and called hanbāgu. It is pan-fried and served on a plate, often with a rich sauce, and is meant to be eaten with plain steamed rice rather than in a bun.

The distinction between these two dishes is considered so important that the official industry organization for ground meat patty products, the Nihon Hamburg & Hamburger Association, includes both in its name.

The bun-type hamburger has a well-defined history in Japan. Introduced by American GIs after World War II, it became more widely popular in the 1970s and onward with the spread of fast-food franchises such as McDonald’s.

The origins of the hanbāgu are somewhat murkier. There are mentions of “German steak” and “minced meat balls” on restaurant menus from the early 20th century, but the hanbāgu only became well known in the 1960s, when it started to appear in cookbooks. And while the bun-type hamburger is still regarded as an American import, the hanbāgu belongs in the yōshoku category of Western-inspired Japanese cuisine, along with curry rice, tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlets) and other favorites.

There has been a boom in gourmet hanbāgu recently, with some restaurants offering expensive versions made with top-grade wagyū (Japanese beef). But at its heart the hanbāgu is a home-cooking staple, most often made with a mixture of ground beef and less expensive ground pork (the mix is known as aibiki). It has ranked in the Top 5 favorite foods of Japanese kids for decades.

The recipe this month is for a version of the hanbāgu that is simmered in a rich sauce. It’s easier to make than a plain pan-fried hanbāgu, since the sauce keeps it moist. Canned demi-glace sauce, available at any Japanese supermarket, is used for the simple sauce. If you can’t get demi-glace sauce, use a beef soup-stock cube dissolved in 100 ml of water and add Worcestershire sauce (the original kind or the Japanese kind) to intensify the flavor.

Recipe: Hamburg steak in mushroom and red-wine sauce

Serves 4


400 g ground meat — a mix of beef and pork or all beef (at least 8 percent fat)
1 large onion
2 teaspoons butter
1 medium or large egg
4 tbsp fresh bread crumbs
1-2 tbsp milk or water
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
Vegetable oil

For the sauce

5 fresh shiitake mushrooms, or other mushrooms of your choice
50 ml semi-dry red wine
140 g (half a small can) canned demi-glace sauce
2 tbsp ketchup
1 tsp soy sauce
Black pepper to taste
100 ml water or soup stock

Chop the onion finely and slice the mushrooms. Saute the onion in butter over medium heat until wilted. Take out two-thirds of the onion and set aside to cool.

Put the sliced mushrooms in the frying pan (with the remaining onion) and saute until browned. Take out of the pan and set aside to use for the sauce.

Moisten the bread crumbs with the milk or water until soft.

Combine the ground meat, onion, bread crumbs, egg, salt and pepper in a bowl. Knead together well until the mixture turns sticky. Divide into four portions and form into patties. Slap them between your palms so that any air pockets are forced out.

Spread some oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Brown the patties on one side for 2-3 minutes, turn them over and brown on the other side for 1-2 minutes. Wipe out the excess fat from the pan using paper towels.

Add the red wine to the hot pan and let it cook down. Add the demi-glace sauce, ketchup, cooked mushrooms and water. When the sauce is bubbling, add the soy sauce and black pepper. Simmer over a medium heat until the patties are cooked through, 4-5 minutes. Taste the sauce and add salt or soy sauce if needed.

Serve with cooked vegetables and/or salad on the side and plain steamed rice.

Note: For plain pan-fried hanbāgu: After turning the patties over, cover with a lid and cook for another 5-6 minutes over low heat until the patties have puffed up and are cooked through.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.

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