Thursday, 28 June 2012

History of Nikujaga (Japanese dish of meat, potatoes and onion)

Nikujaga (肉じゃが?) (meaning meat-potato) is a Japanese dish of meat, potatoes and onion stewed in sweetened soy sauce, sometimes with ito konnyaku and vegetables. Generally, potatoes make up the bulk of the dish, with meat mostly serving as a source of flavor. It usually is boiled until most of the liquid has been reduced. Thinly sliced beef is the most common meat used, although minced/ground beef is also popular. Pork is often used instead of beef in eastern Japan.

Nikujaga is a common home-cooked winter dish, served with a bowl of white rice and miso soup. It is also sometimes seen in izakayas.

Since the main ingredients niku (meat) and jagaimo (potatoes) are historically not traditional Japanese foodstuffs, Nikujaga does not seem typically Japanese. But Nikujaga is a popular meal especially at home. It is a "mother's taste" meal. 

 If Japan had cowboys and burly lumberjacks, this would be their meal. It’s a real work horse of the Japanese home kitchen and quite literally translates to “meat and potatoes”. Being high in energy, low on prep time and very tasty, it’s no surprise why. This is also one of those dishes that tastes even better the next day, so you can make it in larger quantities and warm it up over rice for lunch.

It all started in Maizuru, a city in Kyoto Prefecture that was the site of an Imperial Japanese Navy base from 1901 to 1945 and is currently host to the district headquarters of the Maritime Self Defense Force. Credit Takao Shimizu, vice president of the city's sightseeing association, with the idea of reinvigorating the local economy by promoting the town as the birthplace of "Mom's home cooking." The idea came to him when he heard an MSDF official mention that the popular dish nikujaga originated in the galleys of warships.

Nikujaga is made of beef, braised potatoes, onions, carrots and stringed konnyaku, seasoned with sugar and soy sauce. Today, it is a staple dish in many homes and a popular item at izakaya taverns.

Although Shimizu read in a guide to Japanese cities that nikujaga originated in Maizuru, he could not verify the claim. Even so, he decided to promote the dish as a means of attracting tourists, and formed a kind of nikujaga awareness group in 1995.

The theory goes like this: Heihachiro Togo (1848-1934) was assigned to Maizuru Naval Station as its first commander in 1901 and stayed there for two years. As it happens, Togo had studied naval science in Britain from 1871 to 1878, so Shimizu reasoned he must have eaten beef stew occasionally. "We concocted a story that Togo ordered the cooks to fix something similar to beef stew," he said.

Group member Setsuko Iba took it upon himself to "complete" the Maizuru-style nikujaga, adding green peas and carrots to the original ingredients of beef, konnyaku, potatoes and onions, as described in the navy cook book.

Then the plot started to thicken. While Maizuru residents were laughing it up, congratulating themselves on their creative interpretation of folk history, officials in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, did not think it was such a lark.

City assembly members believed Togo was stationed at the Kure naval base from May 1890 to December 1891, and theorized that he likely introduced nikujaga to the navy diet at that time to prevent vitamin B deficiency. They also pointed out that Togo, as the chief of staff at Kure, (as opposed to commander, his rank in Maizuru) seems more likely to have ordered the chef to improve the diet.

In 1997, the city government promoted a food festival with the claim that nikujaga originated in Kure. The following year, 750 posters were put up in Japan Rail stations around western Japan advertising Kure as the birthplace of nikujaga (a tiny question mark being the only indication of the ongoing controversy).

Shimizu countered repeatedly that Maizuru was the dish's authentic birthplace. Finally, he and Kure officials agreed that both municipalities would lay claim to nikujaga, resulting in a friendly rivalry that would hopefully draw more media coverage -- and more tourists.

Last year, Shimizu scored a coup. He persuaded Calbee Foods Co. to produce a nikujaga-flavored snack. Shimizu approached the company after some university students told him young women would like to have something to eat while walking around tourist spots.

He asked Calbee to consider making a new product that would be sold only in Maizuru. After much hemming and hawing, the manufacturer decided to flavor its potato snack Jagariko with nikujaga and sell it exclusively in Maizuru in October.

Stocks, all 72,000 packs of them, sold out almost immediately, as did 42,000 more that followed.

Apparently, the efforts of both cities are starting to pay off. When people think of Kure and Maizuru, they are beginning to think of nikujaga as much as the former naval bases. "While talking about war itself is taboo, you can't avoid recognizing the navy's presence. But the situation has changed. We tell people Kure was a naval port and that nikujaga was born in the kitchens of the imperial navy," said Kure municipal official Satoshi Kanemitsu.

1 comment:

  1. I found it quite interesting that the common Japanese dish Nikujaga originated to help the Japanese Navy prepare for war. You included quite a bit of important culinary history in this post.