When a Japanese person hears the word “stew,” the dish they’re likely to think of is a concoction of stewed vegetables and chicken (occasionally pork or seafood) in a creamy white sauce. Called “cream stew” or “white stew” this is a typical yōshoku dish: one with ingredients that have European-Western roots, but which is uniquely Japanese.

Nimono (simmered or stewed dishes) have existed in Japan for a long time, but ones that contained meat or poultry only really entered the culinary scene during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when the government deemed that animal-based protein was good for the health of the populace. A “shichū” (the Japanese version of the English word “stew”), described as beef or chicken nimono, first appeared on the menu of a restaurant in Tokyo in 1871, but its ingredients were still hard to come by. In the following decades, newly introduced “Western” vegetables such as carrots and potatoes became widely cultivated, and animal farming — including dairy production — started up in earnest, too. All of this was essential to the development of Hokkaido, an area where former samurai and others who had lost their means of living moved in large numbers during the Meiji Era. Later on, the military — who made it a point to feed the troops plenty of meat to make them stronger — introduced various stewed meat dishes to their diet, including curry.

While white or bechamel sauce-based dishes existed prior to World War II on the menus of fancy yōshoku, the “white stew” as we know it today was only born after 1945. At the time, powdered skim milk supplied by the United States was considered to be essential for boosting the health of children in Japan, who had suffered from malnutrition during the waning days of the war. A dish of stewed chicken and vegetables with a sauce made with powdered milk thickened with flour was introduced to the school lunch program, and became very popular — probably because it was a lot tastier than the powdered milk dissolved in water.

However, the concept of making a similar milk-based stew at home didn’t appear until the latter half of the 1960s. In fact, a well-known cookbook, “Ryori Hyakka” (Encyclopedia of Japanese Cooking), published by Shufunotomo Co. in 1961 contains recipes for Irish stew and Beef Bourguignon, but none for cream stew.) As the children who had grown up eating white stew in school became adults, they grew nostalgic for the combination of creamy sauce and soft stewed vegetables and chicken. In 1966, House Foods — one of Japan’s biggest food manufacturers — introduced a stew roux mix, similar to the already popular curry roux mixes, and other manufacturers soon followed. Cream stew is now firmly established as a standard home-cooked dish that’s especially popular among kids.

The recipe this month is for cream stew made from scratch, including the roux to make a white or bechamel sauce. Use homemade chicken stock to make the dish even more special.

Recipe: White stew (aka cream stew)

Serves 4

  • 500 grams boneless skinless chicken thigh meat, cut into 2-cm pieces
  • 50 grams thick-cut bacon, diced
  • 2 medium onions, cut into wedges
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced
  • 2 medium potatoes, cut up
  • 1 small broccoli
  • 50 grams butter
  • 50 grams flour
  • 500 ml milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 100 ml cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1,000 ml water with 1 chicken stock cube
  • butter for sauteing
  • salt and pepper

Saute the bacon over medium heat in a saucepan until lightly browned. Add the chicken and one tablespoon of butter, and saute until the chicken changes color. Remove both from the pan. Add the onions and saute briefly, then add the carrots. Add water, the stock cube and a bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the potatoes, chicken and bacon, and simmer until the vegetables are tender. Make the sauce by heating the milk in a small saucepan. Melt the butter in a heavy pan over low heat and add the flour. Stir continuously — the mixture will first turn thick, then sand-like. Add the milk slowly, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Boil the broccoli in salted water for three to four minutes and drain. Combine the drained-off chicken, bacon, nutmeg and vegetables with the sauce. Add the nutmeg, cream, plus some of the stock to thin the sauce out. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve the stew over hot plain rice, or with crusty French-style bread.

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