Sukiyaki: The Perfect Family Meal

Winter is in full swing. It's chilly, it's grey, and the evenings are long and dark. Though I love this season, it is still sometimes necessary to find some comfort, and what better way than with good, hardy, warm food. Japan is fully aware of this and has ample amounts of special winter food that gives you just the boost you need. Perhaps the most popular is nabemono, or hot pots. This is a style of stew that involves placing a pot on a burner at the center of the table, and adding ingredients to a broth or sauce as you eat. There are many different types of hot pot, but sukiyaki might be the most well known.

At it's essence, sukiyaki is a sweet and savory dish, consisting of thinly sliced meat (usually beef), noodles, lefty vegetables, tofu, and mushrooms. It is cooked in a sauce made from soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, and therefore is somewhat reminiscent of teriyaki in flavor. Sukiyaki became a popular dish in the Meiji period (1868-1912), once the practice of eating beef had been reintroduced by newly welcomed westerners. Sukiyaki became the "go to" method for serving up beef. 

There are two different theories as to how sukiyaki got its name. First, that the suki came from the Japanese word for a spade (farming tool), which was sometimes used for cooking during the Edo period (1603-1868). The second theory is that suki was derived from sukimi, which means thinly sliced meat. The second part is more obvious, yaki is a verb for the process of grilling, and it adorns the names of many Japanese dishes. Fans of pop music of the 1960s might recognize sukiyaki as the name of the international hit by Kyu Sakamoto. As much as sukiyaki deserves to have a hit pop song written about it, the song actually has nothing what so ever to do with food. Its for real name is Ue wo Muite Aruko, but it was called Sukiyaki so that it would have a catchy recognizably Japanese title for the overseas market. It must have worked, because in 1963 Sukiyaki hit number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 list, something pretty rare for non-English lyric songs. 

I've been wanting to make sukiyaki for quite some time now, but I actively began collecting ingredients for this dish a few weeks ago. It's not that the components are particularly hard to find, it's just that some of them are a little obscure for someone living far from Japanese grocery stores. It's not essential to have exactly these ingredients, but I wanted to get as close as I could for my first go.

Traditionally, sukiyaki is made with:

  • Thinly sliced beef,  of a very good cut with fat marbled into it.
  • Ito konnyaku or shirataki noodles. These noodles are a little different from the usual wheat based noodles of Japan. They're actually made from the konnyaku potato, which has a curiously jelly like texture. These noddles are chewy, and have a mild savory flavor. I bought mine on Amazon, though you could also use bung bean noodles or even udon.
  •  Kikuna leaves, which comes from the edible chrysanthemum plant. If you don't have an Asian market nearby, it might be pretty hard to find this one. I actually had to forgo this ingredient and used spinach instead. 
  • Nappa cabbage, which shouldn't be hard to find. It is sometimes called Chinese cabbage. Unlike your standard cabbage, nappa is shapes more like romaine lettuce and is pale yellow. It has a wonderful mild flavor.
  • Naganegi, a type of green onion that is a bit bigger than scallions, but smaller that leeks. Another ingredient that might be hard to find in your standard grocery store. I replaced it with leek, but you could also use scallions. 
  • Shiitake mushrooms, which are pretty easy to find. Most grocery stores carry them, but you can also easily buy dried shiitake and rehydrate it in only a few minutes.
  • Enoki mushrooms, a "winter mushroom" that flourishes in the colder seasons. It comes in bunches, still attached to the root, and is made up of very long, thin stemmed pale mushrooms. It's actually quite beautiful. The flavor is mild, though distinct. They are a popular ingredient of Japanese soups. Enoki are rare in standard grocery stores, but should be available in an Asian market. If you really want to try them, but can't get your hands on them, you could try growing them yourself with this kit. I was actually surprised to find them at my local grocery store (Tradewinds in Blue Hill, Maine). They stocked them for the first time, three days before I was going to make sukiyaki. What are the chances of that? 
  • Tofu, which is widely available. Use extra firm, and either get the seared variety, or sear it yourself. 

Now, it is not a strict requirement that you cook it on the table and eat as you go. It can be cooked on the stove and then moved to the table. But doing it the traditional way is fun, easy, and very satisfying. If you have a tabletop burner, good for you. Otherwise, you might want to get a simple electric frying pan, like the one I used. Prepare the raw ingredients before hand (cutting them into suitable sizes and such) and carry them to the table and set next to your pot. In Kansai, the western part of Japan, they add sugar, soy sauce and sake as the food cooks. In Kanto, the eastern part of Japan, they use a sauce made from soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, and pour it over the ingredients. I went Kanto style for ease, mixing the ingredients together in a glass measuring cup. Make sure each person present has their own chopsticks and a bowl of rice with black sesame seeds.

The beef gets cooked a little first, then pushed to the side. Each ingredient is then added, making sure that those that take more time to cook go in first. Then the fun begins. As soon as anything is cooked, take your chopsticks and have at it. Careful about drips, I used my rice bowl to catch any. As the food gets eaten down, you can add more! In fact, make sure you have plenty of beef to go around and also plenty of greens, which cut the rich flavor nicely. 

This style of cooking and eating is so much fun, and is perfect for a family dinner or having guests over. You can also use other vegetables as well as those listed. I added baby bella mushrooms, which went great with the flavors. Some people use udon and mochi at the end to soak up the sauce. Another common practice is dipping your food in raw egg whites before eating it. I couldn't quite bring myself to try that one. 

I enjoyed making and eating sukiyaki so much, and this is only the beginning. I plan on trying more hot pots this winter, so stay tuned!

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy this one about salmon miso soup, or this one about different types of Japanese vegetable. 

Until next time, don't forget to have lots of family meals!

Recipe Used: Japanese Cooking 101