When we think about Japanese cuisine we tend to associate it with sushi. As a matter of fact, it is the ‘poster boy’ of Japanese cuisine. It has gained tremendous popularity around the world in the last 10 years. However, this was not the case before.
In the last generation, it was considered disgusting and unappealing by many foreigners to eat raw seafood. This meant that sushi and sashimi were definitely not part of the menu offered to customers at eateries. In those days there was an entirely different popular meal. Sukiyaki! The word sukiyaki literally means suki=slice thinly and yaki=to fry, grill or sear. The dish consists of meat which is slowly cooked or simmered at the table, alongside vegetables and tofu, in a shallow pot in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar and mirin, a sweet rice wine. Boiled noodles or rice cakes are sometimes added to soak up the broth.
The tremendous popularity of this particular Japanese dish has to do first with its versatility. The main ingredient used is meat, usually beef, thinly sliced, but pork or chicken can also be used. Also, the mix of all the exotic tastes and smells, so different to Western cuisines made sukiyaki an instant hit.
One must also mention that because sukiyaki is prepared at the table, it can a chance for a family get together, a party, a special occasion. As mentioned earlier, sukiyaki is a one pot dish. The hot pot is called nabemono. Traditionally, it is required for every individual to scoop directly from the nabemono.
The popularity of sukiyaki and its association with Japan was so overwhelming that in 1961, a widely-known tune sang by Kyu Sakamoto was titled “sukiyaki”, even though the song was not in any way associated with the dish. The original name was “Ue wo Muite Aruko” which means “Walk with Your Head Held High” in English. The song was a huge success even outside Japan. It topped charts in the US, Canada and Norway in 1963 as well as in Japan!
Sukiyaki east and west
We have seen how sukiyaki became the popular synonym for Japanese cuisine outside Japan. Within Japan we meet up with two broad versions of the dish. The Kanto style from eastern Japan and the Kansai style from western Japan.
In the Kanto version, sukiyaki is made by first preparing the broth. Soy sauce, sugar , mirin and dashi stock. This cooking broth/sauce is called warishita. It is put in a pot and placed on a cooker to heat. Then, tofu, meat, and any other vegetables are added and simmered together.
In the Kansai style sukiyaki the meat is heated in the pot first. When the meat is nearly cooked, sugar, and soy sauce as well as sake are added. Vegetables come last.
The ingredients used in sukiyaki are appropriately very exotically Japanese. Because beef was expensive in the past, pork was commonly used. In modern times sukiyaki is also made with chicken or fish. Other ingredients include shiitake and enoki mushrooms, yakidofu which is tofu that has been slightly grilled, and negi which is a type of Japanese spring onion. There are other ingredients that can be added which include shungiku, an edible chrysanthemum leaf, and hakusai, a cabbage from China.
In both Kanto and Kansai sukiyaki, raw eggs are used as a dipping sauce. It is finally served with noodles, udon or shirataki noodles or steamed rice with black sesame seeds.
Overturning an old taboo
Oddly enough, sukiyaki as a dish is only a recent addition to Japanese cuisine. It developed during Japanese emperor’s Meiji’s rule in the early 1900s as a result of Japan becoming accessible to the West. Prior to this time, meat was seldom consumed in Japan apart from the occasional hunting sport. In fact, killing animals was against Buddhist law. Beef was marked out as forbidden not only on religious grounds but also because oxen were used as work animals. Of course people could eat meat in special circumstances like at ‘bonnenkai’ the end of the year party.
All this changed when then the first treaty ports in Yokohama and Kobe were opened to foreign trade in the 1860s.The merchants introduced the culture of eating meat and sukiyaki became a popular way to serve meat. In those days cattle was imported from Korea and China since the demand for beef was high. The advent of Western culture in Japan had begun.