Late last December I went to a Tokyo branch of my favorite butcher shop, Ningyocho Imahan, to buy some meat to make a roast beef for my family’s New Year’s meal. When I arrived I was surprised to discover an hourlong wait to order. The crowd outside had lined up to buy Imahan’s exceptional (and expensive) beef, not for roasting, but for sukiyaki.
It was once common to make osechi ryōri, traditional New Year’s food that is served in elaborate tiered boxes and comprised of various ingredients with symbolic meaning, from scratch. Today, most people order premade osechi from specialty shops and department stores. However, for many people it’s still important to have a home-cooked New Year’s meal that feels like a feast — sukiyaki is a prime choice.
The predecessor to sukiyaki was invented toward the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Before this time, beef was rarely consumed in Japan, even in the days when many other animals were eaten, including deer and boar, mainly because cattle was not farmed for its meat or milk. During much of the Edo Period (1603-1868) Buddhist doctrine prohibited eating four-legged animals; the elite — the aristocracy, warrior class and wealthy merchants — found the idea of eating meat distasteful. But by the beginning of the 19th century, beef suddenly came to represent the modern, Westernized version of Japan that the government was eager to present to its new trading partners in Europe and North America.
Consuming beef showed that the Japanese were their equals in eating habits — not to mention in morals and behavior in general. And so, gyūnabe (beef hot pot) became the rage among people who could afford it. It was as symbolic of the new Japan as zangiri-atama, the haircut of men who had cut off their traditional chonmage (top-knots) and adopted a style similar to Europe’s Victorian gentlemen.
Although many Western culinary traditions entered Japan at this time, the people of Edo (the old name for Tokyo) used the flavors they were accustomed to when cooking other meat dishes, such as kamonabe (duck hot pot). They used sake to lessen the gaminess, with mirin (sweetened rice liquor) and sugar added for sweetness.
Around this time, a dish called sukiyaki appeared in the Kansai region: the beef was pan-fried in fat, and sake, soy sauce, sugar and vegetables were added to it. In the Kanto region, the simmered gyūnabe hot pot that had already existed was eventually renamed sukiyaki, even though the beef in this version is not “-yaki” (fried). These regional differences persist to this day.
It’s hard to say exactly when sukiyaki became a popular meal for the New Year’s period, but perhaps it’s because it’s easy to make. Traditional osechi takes a lot of skill and time and prepare, but nabe (hot pots) take very little effort. Also, the tender, marbled kind of beef that makes the best sukiyaki is very expensive, so most people can only afford it on special occasions.
This month’s recipe is for a classic Kanto-style sukiyaki. You can enjoy it on New Year’s Day or on the other day when it’s traditionally eaten: right after payday.
Recipe: Classic Kanto-style sukiyaki
- For the warishita (cooking sauce)
- 400 ml mirin (sweetened rice liquor)
- 100 ml sake
- 200 ml water
- 120 grams sugar
- 400 ml dark soy sauce
- A 10-cm-square piece of konbu (kelp)
- 400 grams thinly sliced sukiyaki beef
- 1 large bunch shungiku (edible chrysanthemum), cut up
- 1/2 hakusai (Chinese cabbage), cut up
- 2 naganegi (long Japanese leeks) cut into 3-cm-long pieces
- 1 pack enoki mushrooms, roots cut off and separated into clumps
- 1 package shirataki (devil’s tongue yam noodles)
- 1-2 blocks grilled or firm tofu
- 4 mochi cakes and/or 2 packets of pre-cooked udon noodles
- 4 fresh eggs
To make the warishita, boil the mirin, sake, sugar and water together. Turn off the heat and add the konbu and soy sauce. Leave until cool. If you make this in advance, remove the konbu, place the mix in a lidded jar and refrigerate.
Take the beef out of the refrigerator an hour before serving. Drain the shirataki, boil briefly and drain. Cut the tofu into large cubes. Cook the mochi cakes in a toaster until puffy and soft.
Have everything ready to go on the table: the beef on one plate, the vegetables on another and so on. Have the warishita ready to pour. Place a cooker in the middle of the table and set a sukiyaki pan on it. Each person should have one tonsui (small bowl) and an egg, which they can crack into the bowls.
Turn on the cooker and put the chunk of beef fat in it. Move it around the pan until it sizzles. You can leave the fat in or remove it. Add the leeks and coat in the fat. Add enough warishita to cover the bottom of the pan and add about half the beef. Add the Chinese cabbage starting with the stem parts, the enoki, tofu, shirataki and shungiku. Each diner takes out what they like as it cooks, using the egg as a dipping sauce. Keep adding the more warishita if it boils down, as well as more meat, vegetables and so on. At the end, put the mochi or udon noodles in the pan, adding a little more warishita if needed. Cook until soft and infused with the sauce, and eat to finish the meal.