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Many in Japan have speculated on the origins of tonjiru, also known as butajiru, a hearty pork-based miso soup with winter vegetables.

Some believe it originated from kenchinjiru, a vegan soup popular with Zen Buddhists that is similar to tonjiru but without the animal products in it. Others think it is based on a dish known as botan nabe (boar hot pot), and yet another theory posits the word “tonjiru” comes from “tonpeijiru,” a soup eaten by the tondenhei, or “tonpei,” agricultural soldiers who colonized and defended Hokkaido during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

The speculation doesn’t stop there, either. Some believe that tonjiru is based on a rice curry made by the Imperial Japanese Navy, except that they turned it into a miso soup, and some say it might simply be a pork version of satsumajiru, a soup from Kyushu that uses pork, chicken or other meats. However it came to be, there’s no disputing that tonjiru is perfect fare for warming you up when the weather gets cold.

There aren’t that many rules to making tonjiru, except, of course, that it contains pork. I also consider daikon and burdock root to be essential. Some people like to add konnyaku (devil’s tongue), although I’ve omitted it from this version. Besides that, I like to toss in whatever vegetables I have on hand as it’s a great chance to use up leftovers. I prefer to use white Shinshu miso, which seems to go nicely with the slightly sweet vegetables.

You’ll notice that this miso soup doesn’t have dashi stock as the base. This is because the pork and vegetables are already packed with umami. If you would like to up the umami, however, add a teaspoonful of shirodashi (liquid dashi).

This tonjiru is filling enough to serve on its own as a light lunch. It’s even better the following day, when all the flavors have melded together.

Recipe:

Serves 4 to 6

Prep: 20 mins.

Cook: 15-20 mins.

Ingredients:

  • 150 grams thinly sliced pork belly
  • 100 grams daikon
  • 1/4 carrot
  • 1/2 burdock root (gobo)
  • 1/2 onion
  • 2 medium potatoes
  • 1 large green onion or leek (naganegi)
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 4 tablespoons miso
  • 1 teaspoon shirodashi (optional)

Directions:

  1. Cut the pork into bite-size pieces.
  2. Peel the daikon and cut into quarters. Slice about five millimeters wide.
  3. Peel the carrot and slice into rounds.
  4. Scrub the outer skin off the burdock root with a vegetable brush or tawashi scrubber. Cut it into thin, diagonal pieces. Peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks.
  5. Peel the onion and cut it into wedges. Cut up the green onion or leek into three-centimeter long pieces. Thinly slice some of the green part and reserve it for a garnish once you’re done.
  6. Heat up a pan over medium heat with the sesame oil. Add the onion and stir fry until it’s translucent. Add the other vegetables (except for the reserved sliced green onion) and stir fry briefly until the vegetables are coated in oil. Add the pork to the pan and stir fry for another couple of minutes.
  7. Add enough water to cover the vegetables, about 600 milliliters to 700 milliliters. Bring it to a boil and then lower to a simmer. Simmer until the vegetables are tender.
  8. Take out a little bit of the broth and, in a small bowl or ladle, dissolve the miso. Add this back to the pan.
  9. Taste, and add shirodashi if you think the soup needs more umami and salt.
  10. Serve with the reserved sliced green onion or leek on top.

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