Nikujaga is a classic Japanese homecooked dish made with tender, thinly sliced meat and chunky vegetables simmered in a delicious Japanese style broth. This dish is so warming and has a real homely taste.
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Nikujaga is a one-pot dish, quite similar to a simple meat stew. The name "nikujaga" (肉じゃが) combines the word "niku" (meat) with "jagaimo" (potato).
While the dish has quite a Western feel in terms of ingredients, the broth is packed with unique Japanese flavour. It can be eaten either as a main dish served with rice, or even a side to grilled fish, miso soup and pickles. It's really quite versatile.
I ate nikujaga often as a kid and I'd say it's a good example of classic Japanese home cooking.
Ofukuro no Aji
In Japanese, we have an expression "Ofukuro no Aji" (おふくろの味) which literally means "The taste of mum's cooking".
The term is usually used for humble home cooked dishes that you rarely see at restaurants.
Nikujaga is definitely a great example of ofukuro no aji!
Common ingredients used in Nikujaga
The ingredients most commonly used in Nikujaga are:
- Meat (Beef or pork are most common, chicken might also be used)
- Konjac noodles (ito konnyaku)
- Snow peas
While nikujaga can be enjoyed all year around, it is filled with iconic autumn colours (yellow potatoes, orange carrots, browned meats) and has a warming feel. I always enjoy this dish the most in the colder months!
Beef or pork?
So what's the difference between pork nikujaga and beef nikujaga? Is it to do with personal preference? Well actually, it depends on the regions within Japan!
A lot of surveys suggest preference in meat is divided between East and West.
As some of you might already know, I'm from Aichi prefecture, which is right in the centre of Japan (geographically).
Interestingly, we seem to be on the border between pork and beef. But even though this map above suggests Aichi uses 53.7% pork and 46.3% beef, I have always remembered nikujaga as pork dish.
It's actually very interesting that the result in the neighbouring prefecture can be the complete opposite!
Nikujaga was born as a result of failure!?
Firstly, I have to say that there's no definite theory about the origin of Nikujaga. But there is one interesting theory and it goes all the way back to the 19th century in Portsmouth, England.
A Japanese guy was studying in Portsmouth and during his stay, he would often eat English beef stew.
After he returned to Japan, he asked a chef to make beef stew, but the chef didn't know the dish and so he had to improvise. The student described the taste of the stew, and the chef tried to recreate it using alternative condiments that are more accessible in Japan such as soy sauce and mirin.
Of course the taste is not very close to English beef stew, but it later became its own dish that we now know as nikujaga.
Some people claim this story is made-up so we will probably never really know where the dish came from, but as a Japanese guy who studied in England, I found it quite interesting!
10 tips and tricks to make an amazing nikujaga at home
As nikujaga is a typical homecooked dish, there are no real rules on how to make it and every home makes it differently.
Here are some of my favourite tips and tricks to make an amazing Nikujaga at home!
1. Choose meat with good amount of fat
Whether you use pork or beef (or chicken), the amount of fat in the meat is an important element of the recipe. If there is too much fat, it will become greasy, and if there is too little, the meat will become dry and the broth won't be so tasty.
Examples of good meat to use would be pork shoulder, pork belly, beef shoulder etc. We usually use the thinly sliced meat for nikujaga so that we don't have to cook it for so long.
2. Make sure the ingredients are uniform in size
When it comes to any nimono (Japanese stew) , the way we cut the ingredients is an important factor. The size and shape of the cut can change the way the flavor soaks in. We cut the vegetables in a way that each ingredient soaks an equal amount of flavour and works in harmony within the dish.
For example, if the potatoes are of different sizes, they may not be fully cooked or may fall apart. So it's important to cut the potatoes into same size pieces. Also, carrots are less likely to absorb flavor than potatoes, so we cut them into smaller pieces.
3. Choose an appropriately sized pot
If the pot is too big, the broth will evaporate too quickly. On the other hand, if the pot is too small, the broth will not be evenly distributed and some of the ingredients might become undercooked.
For this dish, ideally use a medium pot that has a depth that allows the ingredients to come up to about half way.
4. Fry the vegetables first
Sautéing vegetables in a little oil first will help prevent them from falling apart and will also add umami and savory flavors.
5. Try not to fry the meat too much
If the meat is stir-fried too much, it will become tough, so be sure to cook it as quickly as possible.
6. Use Otoshibuta (Drop lid)
Nikujaga is made with a thin broth that is concentrated in flavour. It's important not to add extra water.
To help the ingredients cook evenly in less broth, we use a tool called a "otoshibuta" or "drop lid" in English.
A drop lid sits on top of simmered dishes while they're cooking. Not only does it stop the ingredients from moving too much and breaking, but it also helps the broth move around the pot and promotes even cooking.
If you plan to use a drop lid often, it might be worth investing in a reusable one. They can made from wood, but stainless steal and silicone drop lids are also popular. The size of the steel ones can often be adjusted to fit different pans too!
However if you're like me and don't use them that often, you can make together your own drop lid using baking paper or aluminum foil. Just cut it to the size of your pot, cut some holes and voila! You can see more on how to make a drop lid here.
Slow cooking brings out the sweetness
When cooking Nikujaga, try not to cook them all at once over high heat, but cook them slowly over low heat to bring out the sweetness of the vegetables.
Try not to mix too much
If you stir the ingredients too much while simmering, potatoes can fall apart. There is no need to stir frequently, as the potatoes will not burn if they are cooked with low heat until the liquid comes to a boil.
When needed, stir as gently as you can.
Ideally cool it down once and reheat
It's not a crucial point, but it is beneficial to cool it down once and reheat again before you eat.
When making nimono (Japanese stew) dishes, the flavors soak in when they are cool rather than when they are heating. To take advantage of this, let it cool for at least one hour after cooking to allow the flavors to soak in. Then reheat right before eating.
Adding soy sauce at the end
Adding small amount of soy sauce at the end adds a burst of flavor, umami, and saltiness to the dish.