Niku-jaga is a side dish of potatoes, beef and onions stewed in a broth flavored with soy sauce. It is often cooked and eaten in the home. The sweet and salty flavoring enhances the light taste of the potatoes, and this, together with the texture of the beef and the sweetness of the onion, makes for food that goes well with a bowl of steamed rice. Men consider niku-jaga an excellent example of their mother's home cooking. And yet the recipe is relatively new.
The common white potato first came to Japan at the end of the 16th century, on a Dutch ship via Djakarta (the capital of Indonesia today). In Japan, the city was called "Jagatara," which explains why the Japanese word for "potato" is jaga-imo (imo is a generic term for potato-like tubers). Potatoes were not eaten much in Japan until the late 1800s, when their cultivation was promoted on a large scale on Hokkaido, an island in Japan's far north with a climate ideal for raising potatoes. Consumption increased steadily after that.
The recipe for niku-jaga was developed in the early 1900s for navy men at sea. At that time, many sailors suffered from beriberi because of a lack of vitamins, and the navy decided to improve their health by serving meals with plenty of vegetables and some meat. One dish the navy came up with was niku-jaga, a beef stew with a different flavoring soy sauce and sugar. The recipe began appearing in cookbooks about 70 years later.
The other side dish introduced here, o-hitashi, has been served since around the 18th century. The Japanese verb, hitasu, means "to soak," and the noun form, hitashi, refers to fresh green leafy vegetables boiled in water and then soaked in a broth flavored with soy sauce. The best part of this side dish is the exquisite, light taste obtained from the broth flavor, but often in the home, broth is not used and the soy sauce is just sprinkled on top.
These two side dishes are now sold ready-to-eat in supermarkets, and are also served as a light meal in pubs and eateries. Niku-jaga and o-hitashi come with plenty of nutritious potatoes and green leafy vegetables, so you may want to serve them at home.
For the niku-jaga, instead of beef, you can use pork or chicken, either as thin slices or ground. In any case, the main ingredient is the potatoes. This is an inexpensive side dish because only a little meat need be used, mainly for the flavor. There are several ways to prepare this side dish, but the key is to sauté the meat, potatoes and onions first, then add seasonings to taste. This gives a stronger flavor and prevents the potatoes from falling apart while stewing. You could also add carrots or konnyaku (devil's tongue) noodles to the stew.
For the o-hitashi
, instead of spinach, you can use another green leafy vegetable, such as komatsuna
(Japanese mustard spinach), shungiku
(corn marigold) or chingensai
(bok choy). Other possibilities are Chinese cabbage or regular cabbage. If you don't have dried bonito flakes, try white sesame seeds instead.
These side dishes were prepared by Ueki Momoko,
a researcher in the culinary arts. She organizes classes in cooking and table coordination. She is also an expert in French cuisine, confectionery making and Japanese cooking, and she shows young people how to make side dishes that go well with rice.