Simmered with Onions in Sweet/Savory Sauce
My friend is the daughter of Japanese immigrants. She grew up eating traditional Japanese food. From time to time, she’ll talk about some of the meals her mother made, and I want to eat almost all of them. Take sukiyaki, for instance. Her mom had the meat cut by a local butcher. She then simmered it in a delicate sauce that my friend can’t replicate. Her mom died many years ago, and her recipes went with them.
I’d guess that most of us have at minimum one or two memorable childhood dishes that we wish we could recreate. Now, after listening to my friend talk about her mom’s cooking, it’s food from her childhood I want. That sukiyaki.
My interest in her food stems from how delicious and special she makes it sound. This is combined with Netflix mini-binges of Japanese TV series. “Midnight Diner.” If you don’t know it, it’s about a Tokyo diner that’s open from midnight to seven am. As long as he has all the ingredients, the man who runs it will make any dish he wants. In those hours of suspended time, customers’ thoughts often turn to the food of their childhood, and they ask him to make a particular dish from their past. Each episode features a different customer and the dish they request.
So between my friend’s food memories and the longings of “Midnight Diner” habitués, I have Japanese food on my brain. It’s been kind of a revelation for me since I had come to equate Japanese food with sushi, sashimi, and seaweed — and raw fish is most definitely not my thing. So I haven’t explored Japanese cuisine, which is so much more than sushi it’s hard to even know where to begin.
I started simple with gyudon (a Japanese fast-food favorite) as a starter sukiyaki. Like sukiyaki, it’s thin-sliced beef, and it’s simmered in a savory-sweet sauce that is similar or the same as is in sukiyaki, depending on the recipe; a foundation of sugar, soy, mirin, and maybe sake. Make gyudon by adding onions to the beef and cooking them in the sauce. Serve the mixture with or without an eggs over rice. Sukiyaki is a more complicated dish and is served over noodles and vegetables.
Machiko Chiba’s recipe for gyudon was the one I found in her book. “The Cook-Zen Way to Eat”Lake Isle Press. It’s a simple dish, and Machiko makes it even easier because her recipe is cooked via microwave in her Cook-Zen cook pot.
The Cook-Zen is Machiko’s specially-designed two-quart pot for the microwave 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 have been my first attempt at microwaving a steak.
I used top-round, but you could also use chuck or ribeye. Japanese grocers sell pre-sliced paper-thin beef. Thin-sliced beef for cheesesteaks at the supermarket might work in a pinch. To make it easier to cut very thin slices, I placed the beef in the freezer for half an hours. I didn’t want to overcook the beef so I set the microwave to level 8 for seven minutes. The result was a little undercooked, and some of it came out of the pot in clumps. I served it with Arborio rice and it was tasty—and worth trying again to see how much tastier it could be.
I made gyudon again, and this time, just like before, I put the meat in a freezer for 30 minutes before slicing. Then I layered the slices individually into the pot so they wouldn’t get tangled. To sharpen the flavor, I added a teaspoon fresh ginger to the sauce. As before, I reduced the sugar by one-third to just one tablespoon. I set the microwave temperature at six degrees and the timer for six minutes. The result was tender meat, and a more flavorful dish.
Since I’d never tasted gyudon before, I wanted to be sure I got it right, so I brought the second batch to my friend for a taste test, and she approved. My usual associations with stir-frying are heat and garlic. However, she pointed out that a lot more Japanese dishes rely on a delicate balance between flavors. It’s a different experience than a fiery Szechuan stir-fry or hot Thai curry, but full and satisfying and gratifyingly light. Gyudon is a great way to introduce yourself to Japanese cuisine’s subtle balance of flavors for someone like me, who can be timid about trying new flavour combinations and ingredients.
Cook Time 8 Minutes
1 large onion, halved then sliced
½ pound beef round, thinly sliced
2 ½ to 3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
1 ½ tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon water
Place all the ingredients into the Cook-Zen. Mix well. Cover and heat on medium high for 7 to 8 mins with the steam holes set. “close.” Serve the beef with sauce over a bowl of rice*.
*Japanese white rice can be used, but you can substitute any kind of rice. Brown, jasmine, or basmati all work well.
Recipe from “The Cook-Zen Way to Eat: MIcrowaving Healthy and Delicious Meals in Minutes”Machiko Chiba (Lake Isle Press, 2010).
Original publication at https://www.lakeislepress.comApril 7, 2022