(Beef and Onion with Rice)
Last November, I had the great good fortune to visit a friend who was living in Tokyo. I have long been interested in Japan, and I loved my experiences there, but my reaction surprised me. I’d been to several destinations in Asia, and this contributed to the sense that Japan was not really Asia, but rather a large Asian-themed park. In most of Asia, you can’t drink the water, traffic is chaos, transportation is antiquated, and electricity is conserved. In Japan, you can drink tap water, traffic is well ordered, transportation is ultramodern and efficient, and electricity is used with wild abandon. There are lovely temples, gardens, and palaces that you can visit, but then you stroll back into sophisticated, hip, modern Japan. The only evidence that you’re really in Asia seems to be the squat toilets—and even those are not ubiquitous in Japan. Japan is clean, efficient, and slick, and it just seems too familiar and to perfect to be “real” Asia.
Fortunately, you can visit all those temples and palaces, and they are splendid. The best place to really indulge in temples is Kyoto, once the capital of Japan. Kyoto was never bombed during WWII, so it is blessed with fabulous examples of old Japan. I visited all the places one is supposed to see, including Ryoanji, with its serenely raked rock garden, and Kinkakuji, a temple that is completely overlaid in gold. Kinkakuji sits at the edge of a lake, and the golden temple and the surrounding mountains and gardens, splashed with bright autumnal colors, were all reflected in the water. It was incredibly beautiful. My other favorite sight in Kyoto was Nijo Castle. This amazingly lovely building—miles of wood and painted panels—offered a wonderful glimpse into court life of a millennium ago. One of my favorite aspects of the “castle” was the “nightingale floors.” The wooden floors have been built in such a way that, as one walks on them, they twitter and chirp like a bird. It’s lovely and musical, but had the very practical purpose of ensuring that no one could sneak up on you.
We also visited Nara, the oldest city in Japan and the country’s capital before Kyoto. The main things to see are the city’s parks, temples (Buddhist), and shrines (Shinto). One temple, Todai-ji, is the largest wooden structure in the world, constructed without the use of nails. Another delight of Nara is the Nara deer—hundreds of diminutive deer stroll through the parks and wander amid the tourists.
Tokyo, too, offered much to see, from the serenity of the Imperial Palace to the dazzle and crowds of Electric City. The Edo-Tokyo Museum was one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever seen. It takes you through the entire history of Tokyo, from its earliest days through the rule of the shoguns to World War II to the present. In some places, full-sized buildings have been recreated, and everywhere, there are fascinating displays and collections.
Well, I could go on for a long time about my adventures in Japan, but I want to mention the important fact that Japan is paradise for food lovers. All the major department stores have incredible food floors, with everything from the most exquisitely prepared local dishes to the most outrageous European chocolates. There are food shops everywhere, from sushi makers to French bakeries. The markets are amazing. The Nishiki-Koji Market in Kyoto extends for blocks, and you can get everything from the freshest ingredients to full meals. In Tokyo, a must see is the Tsukiji Fish Market. You have to arrive before 8 a.m., but the experience makes it worth the effort. This “market” process 5 million pounds of fish every day! It is an overwhelming sight—fish and seafood, dozens and dozens of varieties, from tiny shellfish to long silvery eels to massive bluefin tuna—in unbelievable numbers, stretching for blocks. And everyone is moving at very high speed. Everything is processed, packed, and moved within a few hours. One sees stacks of containers already labeled for shipment overseas, but there are also long lines of trucks waiting to whisk the incredibly fresh fish to restaurants and stores around Tokyo It’s mind blowing. And the fish market is surrounded by blocks and blocks of markets selling everything from herbs and spices to mushrooms to rice cookers and chop sticks. It’s no wonder the Tsukiji area is known as Tokyo’s kitchen.
One of the great joys of Japan is that, while one can unload a lot of money on food at a high-end restaurant, it is possible to eat really well on a budget. There are myriad small places that cater to the working classes, offering noodle and rice dishes, soup, or tempura. I came to love Japan’s version of fast food: pick the dish from a picture or from an array of plastic replicas of the food, note the number of the item you want, go to a vending machine and put in the price of the dish (usually no more than $4), grab the ticket the machine spits out, find a seat, and hand the ticket to a speeding waiter. Tea and soup appear instantly, and the dish you ordered comes only a minute or two later. All the dishes are classics: soba noodles with shrimp tempura, udon noodles with vegetables, rice with Japanese curry, and more.
I could go on for a lot longer about the wonders of Japan, both culinary (I didn’t mention the Kobe beef, did I—wow) and cultural. But I think it’s time to close and give you a recipe. Donburi means “rice bowl,” though the word has come to refer to a category of food served in these large, deep bowls. Rice is the base of every donburi, with a variety of hot toppings being ladled over the top. Beef was first used in donburi in the mid-1800s, when eating beef was no longer forbidden to the common people. Gyu donburi means “beef rice bowl,” but this is commonly shortened to simply gyudon. There are a few exotic ingredients in this dish, but once you have everything on hand, it’s a breeze to make. Enjoy.
(Beef and Onion with Rice)
4 cups of hot, cooked white rice
1 pound thinly sliced beef
2 medium onions
1⅓ cups dashi (see notes)
5 Tbsp. soy sauce or tamari
3 Tbsp. mirin
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. sake
Cut the onions into thin half-rings. Cut the beef into bite-sized pieces (see note below about sliced beef). Put the dashi, soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and sake in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion slices and simmer for five minutes, or until the onions begin to get a bit softer. Then add the beef and simmer for a few minutes longer, until the beef is cooked through with no pink showing. Serve over white rice in deep bowls.
You’ll probably need to visit an Asian grocery store to find many of these ingredients. While dashi, a fish stock that is the base of a surprisingly large range of Japanese dishes, can be made from scratch, most people now opt for one of the easier ways of producing it. The two options I’ve tried are the powder—just mix it in hot water, and there’s your stock—and the small bag filled with all the classic ingredients, which you then drop into water and boil for ten minutes. The second version offers a little better flavor, but the first version is much easier and is good enough for most applications (including gyudon). Look for dashi (powder or bag) that has bonito flakes high up on the ingredients list, as this is the real flavoring agent behind traditional dashi. I usually look for dashi that doesn’t have MSG, but that’s just a preference—Asia uses lots of MSG, so it has nothing to do with authenticity.
Mirin is a sweet rice wine, but you can usually find “cooking mirin” in the vinegar and soy sauce aisle, even in stores that don’t otherwise carry alcohol.
Any Asian grocery store with a meat counter will likely have pre-sliced beef on hand. You could also ask the butcher at your regular grocery store to slice the beef —sirloin, rib eye, and top round are nice choices—into the ¼-inch-thick slices needed for this dish. Be aware that the slices of beef purchased in an Asian grocery store will often be the full size of a steak, just very thin, and you need to cut them a second time into strips that are about 1 inch wide. Note that the strips of beef for gyudon are generally a bit thinner than what you normally find cut up and sold as “stir fry.” So your best bet is to get the Asian-style sliced beef and then make your strips.