Stewed with onions in a sweet/salty sauce
My friend is the child of Japanese immigrants, so she grew up eating a lot of traditional Japanese food. Every once in a while she talks about some of the dishes that her mother made, and I feel like eating almost all of them. Take, for example, his sukiyaki. Her mother had the local butcher slice the beef very thin and simmer it in a delicate sauce that my friend can’t replicate, no matter how hard she tries. Her mother passed away a few years ago and, alas, her recipes went with her.
I imagine most of us have at least one or two memorable dishes from our childhood that we wish we could have again. Now after listening to my friend talk about her mom’s cooking, it’s food from his the childhood I want. Like this sukiyaki.
My interest is in response to how she makes food special and tasty, combined with the ongoing Netflix mini-binges of the Japanese TV series “Midnight Diner”. If you don’t know, this is a Tokyo restaurant open from midnight to seven in the morning. The man who runs it will cook any dish his customers want as long as he has the ingredients. In those hours of suspended time, customers’ thoughts often turn to food from their childhood, and they ask it to make a particular dish from their past. Each episode focuses on a different customer and spotlights the dish they request.
So between my friend’s culinary memories and the desires of regulars at the Midnight Diner, I have Japanese food in mind. It’s been kind of a revelation for me since I’ve come to equate Japanese cuisine with sushi, sashimi and seaweed – and raw fish is definitely not my thing. So I haven’t explored Japanese food, which is so much more than sushi, it’s hard to even know where to start.
I decided to start small, with a kind of entry-level sukiyaki called gyudon, which is a staple in Japanese fast food. Like sukiyaki, it is thinly sliced beef and is simmered in a sweet-salty sauce similar or identical to that of sukiyaki, depending on the recipe; a base of sugar, soy, mirin and perhaps sake. To make gyudon, add onions to the beef, cook them in the sauce, and serve the mixture over rice with or without an egg. Sukiyaki is a little more complicated and is served over vegetable noodles.
I found a recipe for gyudon by Machiko Chiba in his book “The Cook-Zen Way to Eat” published by Lake Isle Press. It’s a simple dish, and Machiko makes it even easier because her recipe is microwaved in her Cook-Zen pot.
The Cook-Zen is Machiko’s specially designed two-quart microwave oven that heats quickly and evenly. It’s like Instant Pot for the microwave but smaller (and you don’t have to wait for the steam to release when it’s done). This would be my first time cooking a steak in the microwave, which I admit sounded weird, but I was willing to give it a try.
I used the top lathe, but you can also use the chuck, rib eye, or lathe eye. (Japanese grocers sell paper-thin pre-sliced beef, and maybe thin-sliced beef for cheesesteaks at the supermarket might do the trick in a pinch). I put the beef in the freezer for half an hour to help manage the very thin slices. I wanted to be careful not to overcook and put the microwave on level eight for seven minutes. The result was a bit well done and some of the beef came out of the pot in clumps. I served it with Arborio rice and it was delicious – and worth trying again to see how much tastier it could be.
So I made gyudon one more time, and the second time, like before, I put the meat in the freezer for half an hour before slicing it. Then I layered the slices individually in the jar so they wouldn’t tangle. I also added a teaspoon of fresh ginger to the sauce to accentuate its savory notes, and like before, I reduced the sugar by a third to just one tablespoon. I set the microwave temperature to level six and the timer to six minutes. The result: tender meat and a tastier dish.
Since I had never tasted gyudon before, I wanted to be sure I understood correctly, so I brought the second batch to my friend for a taste test, and she approved. I usually associate sautéing with garlic and heat, but as she pointed out, many Japanese dishes rely on a much more delicate balance of flavors. It’s a different experience from a fiery Szechuan stir-fry or a hot Thai curry, but full and satisfying and rewardingly light. For someone like me who may be shy about trying new ingredients and flavor combinations, gyudon offers a happy introduction to the subtle balance of flavors in Japanese cuisine.
Cooking time 8 minutes
1 large onion, halved and sliced
½ pound round beef, thinly sliced
2 ½ to 3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
1 ½ tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon of water
Put all the ingredients in the Cook-Zen. Mix lightly. Cover and heat over medium-high heat for 7-8 minutes with the steam holes set to “closed”. Serve the beef with the sauce over a bowl of rice*.
*Japanese white rice can be used, but you can substitute any type of rice. Brown, Jasmine and Basmati all work well.
Recipe from “The Cook-Zen Way to Eat: Microwave Healthy and Delicious Meals in Minutesby Machiko Chiba, Lake Isle Press, 2010
Originally posted on https://www.lakeislepress.com on April 7, 2022.