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Finding Home in a Bowl of Nikujaga

Passport & Plate - Nikujaga

Japan | Friday, 14 March 2014 | 2 photos

315 grams, thinly sliced beef (sliced into 1 ½ inch pieces)
5 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 medium sized carrot, peeled and cut into half moons
1 large onion, peeled and cut into 6 wedges
1 ball of ito konnyaku (devil’s tongue in thread form, cut into 1 inch pieces) check in Asian Markets
1 ½ tablespoons of canola oil
2 cups of dashi stock or water + 2 teaspoons of powdered dashi (check in Asian Markets)
If you can’t find dashi, substitute with low-sodium beef stock
4 tablespoons of sugar
4 tablespoons of sake
4 tablespoons of mirin
3 tablespoons of soy sauce
100 grams of snap peas, trimmed and sliced in half on the diagonal
2 sprigs of chives, finely chopped to garnish


How to prepare this recipe
Peel and cut the potatoes and soak them in a bowl of water for 10 minutes
Rinse the ito konnyaku and in a pot bring to a boil. Drain and set aside
Prepare a pot of salted boiling water. Add snap peas and leave for 1 minute. Remove from the pot and transfer to a bowl of chilled water. Drain and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the beef. When the beef has cooked through, add the onions, potatoes, carrots and ito konnyaku. Stir the ingredients until they are coated with oil.
Add the dashi or water+ dashi powder and increase the heat to high. Bring to a boil and skim the foam that forms at the surface. Reduce the heat to medium low. Add sugar and sake. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the mirin and soy sauce.
Cover the pot with a drop lid and reduce the heat to low. Simmer until the vegetables are tender and the liquid has reduced to about half. About 25 minutes.
Add the snap peas and let simmer for another 5 minutes
Adjust the seasonings if needed
Ladle in a bowl and garnish with chives. Serve with rice. For authenticity, the rice would be served in a separate bowl.


The story behind this recipe
Far from home I am hungry, lonely and shoeless sitting in a brightly lit room. The scent of simmering dashi (Japanese stock) mingled with that of tatami mats is in the air. I’m thinking, “Here I go again. I’m plunging in, trying to learn how to swim.” It’s been years since I lived in Japan and I am searching for remnants of my once less than basic Japanese to make small talk with Tomo, the lovely round-faced oba-chan (auntie) that greeted me with a radiant smile and hearty “Irrashaimase!” (welcome) when I entered her quaint teishoku (home-style Japanese food) shop.
I sit quietly lost in my thoughts as she shuffles furiously through her kitchen to prepare my set meal. Now, a local Kanda girl, I am an alien fallen from the sky in this remote corner of the planet. As I fight back tears I hear her approaching and think this could be the only thing that might cure my existential malaise. She places the lacquered tray before me and I am relieved. I can feel the fears, worries and feeling of alienation slowly dissipate. “The Universe is in balance once more,” I think to myself. This blissful feeling is brought on by a dish that is, literally and simply, meat and potatoes. “Niku” means meat and “jaga,” from the word “jagaimo,” means potatoes. This is a popular “ofukuro no aji” meal, which translates into “mother’s taste.”
The ingredients are slowly braised in sake, mirin, and soy sauce. This intoxicating brew creates the sweet and savory masterpiece. When I lived in Nagasaki, whenever I felt lost and alone, Nikujaga brought NYC a bit closer and lessened the sadness and longing to be home. When I look down at the bowl and see the familiar fare, memories of my Abuela’s (grandma’s) food come back to me. I think of the similar dishes she so lovingly prepared for her family. I think of the grandmothers, their hands taking simple ingredients and adding their magic to dishes that comfort and reassure us that, no matter where we find ourselves in life, everything will be ok.
I spot Tomo’s face beaming with pride as I carefully savor the heavenly dish. I wrestled up enough of my rusty Japanese to let her know how much I love it. Few words are exchanged between us but, her nikujaga is saying everything that she would like to say to me. The narrative flows fluidly and effortlessly from her dish. Her bowl of “ofukuro no aji” has assured me all will be just fine.

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