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Japanese Recipe Adventures: Nikujaga with a Kick

Meat and potatoes will never lead you astray.

By 4 min read

In this new GaijinPot series, GP contributors test out Japanese recipes they found online with varying degrees of success.

“If you want to get a Japanese guy, you must know how to make nikujaga better than his mother.” This was what my Japanese teacher told us in my first Japanese class. Sexist statement aside, many of us were actually surprised to learn that Japanese cuisine is not always made of raw fish, rice, and noodles.

Indeed, nikujaga is a meat and vegetable dry stew that’s incredibly simple and as hearty as you would expect of any traditional family recipe. Every Japanese family has their own version. It might look simple at first glance but the final taste will really depend on your cooking skills.

Today’s version will have a kick with the Chinese spicy chili paste doubanjiang (とうばんじゃん in Japanese). My own personal touch, the addition of carrots, makes the dish a bit more colorful as well.

Ingredients

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The meat and potatoes. Literally!

Nikujaga literally means meat (にく) and potato (じゃがいも), but you’ll need a few more ingredients to make it tasty.

200gr of thinly sliced meat of your choice, medium fat

  • 1 onion
  • 2 potatoes (Tip: Usually count 1 medium size potato per person )
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 tbsp cooking oil
  • Green onions for decoration

For the sauce

  • 400 ml water
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 4 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp mirin
  • 2 tbsp cooking wine
  • 1 tsp doubanjiang (optional)

About doubanjiang, the chili bean paste

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This spicy paste is totally optional but will add a nice kick and bit of saltiness to this rather sweet dish. You’ll find it in any Japanese supermarket but I strongly recommend you visit a Chinese grocery store to find a cheaper and better one.

Those living in Japan can easily find a Chinese grocery store in Yokohama Chinatown in Kanagawa or around Ikebukuro Station west exit and Shin-Okubo for Tokyo.

Its Korean alternative, gochujang, will work too but you’ll have to remove the sugar from the sauce as the Korean paste is already pretty sweet.

Directions

1. Wash and peel the potatoes, carrot, and onion.

Tip: You can leave the skin on potatoes and carrots if you have time to wash and brush out the dirt.

2. Cut the potatoes into bite-size pieces.

3. Cut the carrot at an angle, the same size as the potatoes.

4. Cut the onion into big chunks.

Tip: The smaller you cut hard vegetables, the faster they’ll cook. Keeping the onions in big chunks will allow them to cook at the same pace as other ingredients.

5. Stir fry the meat until half cooked in an oiled pot.

6. Add the onions, potatoes, and carrots to the pot and stir fry for two minutes on medium heat.

7. Add just enough water to roughly cover the ingredients.

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This is about how much water you need!

8. Mix the sugar, soy sauce, mirin, cooking wine, and doubanjiang together and pour the mixture into the pot on high heat. Don’t cover it!

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Boiling for you.

9. Cook on high heat until the water is nearly gone.

10. It’s ready when the potatoes are fully cooked.

Tip: If it’s still too watery at this point, filter down the water in a separate pot and boil it on high heat until reduced before reintroducing it.

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This is the right consistency.

11. Serve with green onion on top.

So, how did it come out?

The regular nikujaga that I’d been cooking prior to this recipe paled in comparison to this version.

The meat soaked up the flavor from the sauce giving it a sugary smoked taste. As the water evaporated, the sauce got thicker and coated the vegetables nicely. When you eat it, make sure to get a good mix of meat and veggies in each bite to really feel the flavor balance.

With that being said, the original recipe I used called for four tablespoons of sugar, but I’m glad I cut the sugar by half because the sweetness was just enough. I could even smell caramelized sugar from the sauce when it was nearly done!

In the end, I certainly didn’t get a Japanese guy with my nikujaga skills, but at least I could share this Japanese recipe adventure with you instead.

A lot of Japanese cuisine is surprisingly sweet. I see so many Japanese recipes that have sugar listed as an ingredient that aren’t desserts or cakes!

Coming from France where we mostly use salt, herbs, and pepper to raise flavors, the Japanese way of seasoning dishes was quite a shock. But I’ve learned that most of the time you can omit the sugar completely to fit your taste.

In the end, I certainly didn’t get a Japanese guy with my nikujaga skills, but at least I could share this Japanese recipe adventure with you instead.

What recipe would you like to see us try next time? Let us know in the comments!

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