Japanese Sukiyaki: A Traditional Hot Pot with an Untraditional Sauce
Japanese sukiyaki is a popular nabemono (hot pot) that’s cooked tabletop. It’s made with thinly sliced beef (though thicker than the meat used in shabu shabu), vegetables, shirataki noodles, and tofu, which are cooked in a shallow cast iron pan. The broth is made with warishita, a sweet spicy liquid seasoning made of soy sauce and sugar, cooked together with the meat and vegetables, which are then dipped in raw egg before eating.
There are many reasons why people in and outside of Japan love sukiyaki. In addition to being delicious, sukiyaki is cooked tabletop, making it a fun and social meal. In Japan, it’s often eaten during the winter, with everyone gathered around the sukiyaki pot enjoying their food together. Like shabu-shabu, portion sizes can be tailored easily with sukiyaki, and you can load up on tons of vegetables for a healthier meal.
The caramelized sugar, soy sauce, and the strong bold seasoning give sukiyaki a mouthwatering fragrance. It is often eaten for dinner in the home as a small indulgence or a reward for working hard everyday.
The Evolution of the Mighty Sukiyaki from the Humble Gyunabe
Sukiyaki spread throughout Japan in the late Edo period with the opening of the ports of Yokohama in 1859, and meat was introduced by foreigners. Prior to that, the Japanese kept no livestock, and all meat was imported from China or the United States. As the beef gained popularity, Japanese farmers began to raise their own cattle.
Refrigeration technologies and meat processors at the time were in the premature stages, so meat easily became tough and strong-smelling. To counter this, it was usually cut into thick chunks and simmered with miso to make "gyunabe." Leeks were the only other ingredient used, since it made a satisfying crunching sound (pronounced zakuzaku in Japanese). This term later used to describe all other non-meat ingredients in sukiyaki, like vegetables and tofu.
The popularity of the gyunabe became a symbol of the Enlightenment Movement (Bunmei Kaika). As the quality of the meat improved, seasonings in the Kanto region also changed - from plain miso to a sauce made of soy sauce and sugar (warishita). In the mid Showa era, as Japan entered a rapid growth period, and brands of beef appeared. People started cutting the meat thinner, giving birth to sukiyaki. Sukiyaki became a haute cuisine, and a delicious feast for the Japanese masses.
People in Japan could finally consume beef and eggs, and sukiyaki was the perfect dish for enjoying them together.
The Difference between Sukiyaki, Shabu-Shabu, and Other Japanese Hot Pots
Sukiyaki differs from other hot pot dishes such as chanko nabe and yudofu with its use of beef fat (suet) and its sweet soy sauce broth. Sukiyaki is probably most similar to shabu-shabu, another popular hot pot dish made with thinly sliced beef and vegetables. But unlike shabu-shabu, where diners cook ingredients piece-by-piece by dipping them into a light dashi broth and then into dipping sauces such as sesame and ponzu, the ingredients of sukiyaki are cooked together in a richly flavored broth being removed with chopsticks, dipped in egg, and eaten.
Sukiyaki Equipment and Ingredients
To make Japanese sukiyaki, you’ll need a few cooking tools and ingredients. The first is a tetsunabe, a type of cast iron pan. Look for a relatively shallow pan as you’ll be frying the ingredients before simmering them, but still deep enough to fit the ingredients and broth. Long chopsticks are ideal for adding ingredients and stirring them around the pan as you cook, and you'll need small bowls to serve individual eggs for dipping. The fun of sukiyaki is in cooking it at the table, so you should have a portable electric or gas burner. If a portable burner is not available, you can cook your sukiyaki on the stove and then transfer it to the tetsunabe to serve at the table.
To make the broth for sukiyaki, you need soy sauce, water, sake, mirin (sweetened rice wine), and sugar. For the main ingredient, look for thinly sliced well-marbled beef. Supermarkets in Japan sell high-quality beef that’s been pre-sliced for sukiyaki, but if that’s not available you should look for a well-marbled cut of sirloin or other similarly tender meat. Freeze the beef just until it’s stiff but not so frozen that you can’t cut it, and then slice the beef against the grain as thinly as possible. In addition to beef, the most common sukiyaki ingredients are Japanese leek, shungiku (chrysanthemum leaves), napa cabbage, fresh shiitake mushrooms, firm tofu, shirataki noodles, and udon noodles. Except for the noodles, the other ingredients should be cut into bite-sized pieces. You should also have one fresh egg per person for serving. Please note that raw egg is frequently consumed in Japan, but if you’re outside Japan, make sure to look for fresh eggs that are safe to eat uncooked.
How to Make Japanese Sukiyaki
There are two main methods for making Japanese sukiyaki, the Kansai (western Japan) method and the Kanto (eastern Japan) method.
Although the Kansai method of preparing sukiyaki involves more steps, it’s very popular because it creates an incredibly rich and flavorful hot pot. First, melt a piece of suet (beef fat) in the tetsunabe, then add several slices of beef and sprinkle with sugar. As the beef browns, it caramelizes the sugar, as well as creating a Maillard reaction, the browning process that makes cooked meat taste more delicious. Together, these will make your sukiyaki even more delicious! Next, drizzle on the soy sauce and push the beef to the edge of the nabe pot, leaving an open space in the center. Add the sliced leek to this space and brown slightly before adding in more sugar and soy sauce. Do the same for the remaining sliced vegetables and tofu, adding a little more sugar and soy sauce each time. Then, add the other liquid ingredients and noodles and allow to simmer until it’s ready.
The Kanto method is the easier of the two—first, mix the ingredients for the broth together to make a liquid called warishita. Pour this into the cast iron pot, reserving some for later, and then add the meat, vegetables, tofu and noodles. If you want the sweet and savory richness of Kansai sukiyaki but without all the complicated steps, you can first brown the sliced meat in the beef fat and sugar, then add pre-mixed warishita and other ingredients, then allow it to simmer. You can make several rounds of sukiyaki both of these ways, adding more warishita when the liquid gets low.
To serve, for both the Kansai and Kanto methods, crack a fresh egg into each individual bowl and beat lightly. Dip the cooked ingredients into the raw egg and enjoy!
Where to Eat Sukiyaki in Japan
Although sukiyaki is primarily a dish enjoyed at home, there are a number of sukiyaki specialty shops you can go for a gourmet sukiyaki experience. Sukiyaki dining in Japan can be a luxury affair, with a kimono-clad server gracefully preparing your sukiyaki and serving your food, slice by tender slice of beef dipped in egg. Browse Gurunavi’s list of restaurants where you can enjoy authentic sukiyaki in Japan.