Nick Jagger 肉じゃが (Japanese style braised meat and potato dish)

Huh??? Who’s Nick Jagger? Is it the misspelling of Mick Jaggar?  Or is it his brother, or another related family member of his, as far as officially reported (you never know though.) In Japan, it’s spelled “Niku Jaga”, but it’s actually pronounced as Nick Jaggar.

OK, time to stop joking around. Nick Jaggar, or Niku Jyaga, literarely “Meat (Niku) and Potato (Jaga-imo)” in Japanese, and is one of the Japanese staple dishes. It’s like mom’s home cooking to many people.

So, is it the same thing as American meat and potatoes, which is normally huge steak and baked potato in the skin? No not really… Remember my last post? Yes, you guessed it right! The Japanese version has a lot more potato than meat (since meat, especially beef is so expensive there), and cooked in you guessed it, a soy sauce and mirin mixture. That smell is very distinctive and fills many Japanese kitchens!  This is it!

Nikujaga, the Japanese meat and potato dish

Nikujaga, the Japanese meat and potato dish

There are several different versions: some people put carrots (like my version), or green beans (I thought about it, but decided to use them for my favorite Turkish dish), or shirataki or ito-konnyaku noodles… Some are soupy, some are not. Actually in our household, I make it with ground turkey, since my hubby from Meat and Potato country Wisconsin doesn’t eat red meat!!! What’s wrong with him? (Long story…. He used to, but when he lived in Japan, he found the price of meat (especially beef) so high, he decided to live witout it.) Since then, he doesn’t eat red meat, even when we visit his family in Wisconsin, which is kind of a problem, because there is not much else to eat in winter in Wisconsin…. It’s not Bay Area, where there are many Vegans and vegetarian options. Hey… I can cook this Nick Jaggar thing when we are there during our upcoming family reunion! Made with all familiar ingredients, they may like it too. They will LOVE IT! Then I can have a break from American meat and potato dishes! (and hot dogs!) Anyway, because of that reason, and my unwillingness to give up all these meat dishes at home, I’ve made a compromise to cook most of my meat based dishes with poultry.

One more thing about using thinly sliced meat or scrap meat. This dish taste better when there’s some fat on the meat. So, when you are at the butcher, ask them to cut that sort of meat (shoulder, loin etc.) very thinly or just use ground meat.

Ingredients: Serves 4

  • Thinly sliced beef or pork, cut bite size (or use meat scraps) or ground turkey, 1/2 lbs (200-250g)
  • 1 Medium onion, sliced
  • about 1 1/2 lbs (700g) potatoes, peeled and cut in bite-size pieces (Note: Use Yukon gold or red potatoes if you want to keep the shape of potatoes)
  • 3-4 carrots, peeled and cut in bite-size pieces
  • 1 1/2 tbs sugar
  • 2 tbs mirin
  • 3 tbs soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 tbs sesame oil

Directions:

  1. Heat sesame oil in a large skillet or a shallow pan on high (make sure you have a matching lid). Cook thinly sliced onions until translucent. Add the meat cut into bite size pieces and cook until the meat starts to change color.
  2. Add sugar, mirin and soy sauce and mix it well with ingredients from #1.
  3. Top with potatoes and carrots , add about 2 c of water (make sure the vegetables are covered up to about 2/3 of their height) Cook on High with the lid on. If you are cooking in a skillet, make sure the water is not too high (it will boil up like crazy.)
  4. Stir the pot every 5 minutes or so, making sure the food doesn’t get burned. If the liquid is almost gone before the vegetables are tender, add some extra water. (We are steaming vegetables here with this liquid, but we don’t want the final dish too soupy, so the harder the veggies are, the more water you will need.)
  5. When the vegetables are cooked through and tender, remove lid, stir from the bottom a few times, and let the rest of liquid evaporate a little more. Serve hot with steamed rice.

Variation:

  • If adding green beans, do so after potatoes and carrots are relatively soft, the last 5 minutes or so of cooking.
  • If adding shirataki noodles: first rinse in salted water, cook in clean water, boil for 5 min, release in cold water, squeeze out water and cut in bite size pieces. Add this in when you add potatoes and carrots.

Bon Appetit!   いただきまーす!

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Cultural difference about food portions… Iri-dofu いり豆腐 (Tofu Scramble)

Iri-dofu, Japanese scrambled Tofu

Iri-dofu, Japanese style tofu scramble

There are many different cultures assimilated into Japan from other countries.  Since I live in the US, that is the most obvious connection. However, we recently rented a cottage on the Oregon Coast with our sister-in-law’s family for about 5 days and learned about some of the differences.  We cooked many wonderful local seafood dishes in our rental cottage, and I found some very interesting differences between Japanese and American food cultures.

I offered to cook during the trip, and as all of us were sightseeing together, we also went shopping together on the way back home.  Each time, I asked what everyone wanted to eat, etc, to be a nice sister-in-law.  Very PC, right?  For some reason, my sister-in-law Amy thought the amount of things I tried to get for dinner (especially meat and seafood) was very small.  At our house, we normally buy 1/2 pound, which is 8 oz (225g) for two of us, unless we want to make extra for leftovers.  My husband (her brother) eats what I cook everyday, and we often go grocery shopping together, so he’s ok with 4 oz per person thing.  As a matter of fact, that’s what the FDA suggests as a “healthy” not “hefty” serving size. (Yes, that deck of a card portion thing, if you’ve seen it somewhere.) Given that they don’t live with us I decided 5-6 oz per person should be more than enough.   So, for 4 of us, I though1 1/2 pound (6oz each) would be plenty.  What I didn’t tell them was that I was planning to cook 2-3 more dishes, which was more than the side of “steamed green beans and corn.” 

At dinner, they didn’t eat as much as they said they would eat.  The total amount of food from all the dishes I cooked for dinner was actually a lot more than they are used to, so we ended up with quite a bit of leftovers.  It was like 8+1+1=10  vs 4+3+2+2=11.  I didn’t want to look like this evil person who’d be so stingy that I left everybody hungry for the night, so I decided on the 8 oz portion, and it ended up 8+3+2+2=15!  This makes total sense.  Americans are used to one big dish and maybe a tiny salad or side (unless it’s Thanksgiving or something), but Japanese eat one smaller main dish (with a lot less animal protein), and many side dishes which consists of many different ingredients, as you see in the mathematical formula.  I read in Japan before that we should try to eat 30 different ingredients everyday (and ideally its different from day to day.)  In the US….  hmm……  No wonder many Americans take multi-vitamins and Japanese don’t seem to be so into vitamins.  Culturally, we feel like we should take them all from the food we eat! 

Probably the best reflection of these differences is the quintessential American and Japanese dinner out.  American version:  Nice extra large steak, extra large potato, lots of sour cream, and maybe a big salad (maybe Ceaser to reduce the variety of food.) About 5 kinds of food.  Japanese version: Kaiseki, which is a dozen or so courses of extra small, bite size dishes that consist of 10 differnt ingredients for each.  Or even if you don’t spend that much money and/or time for it, we go to Izakaya and order many small plates of various dishes and share.  50 kinds, 100, more????  Do we count different fish as one or seperately????

Of course, we don’t do that at home (as you can imagine, a huge burden on the chefs), but you get the idea.

We also cook many dishes with very little meat — almost using meat just for flavors.  I remember when we went to Turkey, we told our friends that my husband doesn’t eat meat.  She said “Oh, don’t worry.  In Turkey, most dishes are made of pretty much all vegetables and very little meat except for flavor.”  It’s a little bit like that.

This dish I share with you is similar.  Most of the protein is from tofu, and a little bit of egg and tuna are added for flavor and texture.  You can easily make this vegetarian.  I love this dish with steamed rice.  It’s cheap, easy to prepare, tasty, and makes me feel like I’m back at home…

Oh, one thing about tofu.  When you make Japanese dishes, please use Japanese style tofu.  There are Chinese and Korean types (and probably American too that you could find at health food stores, etc.) but the texture is often different.  For this dish, you may want to use Momen-dofu, which is the medium-firm kind.  House tofu and Azumaya tofu are readily available.  Kinugoshi-dofu, which is medium soft kind is too soft and watery for this dish.

About the serving size.  Like I mentioned above, if this dish was served in Japan, it would be for 4 people, because it will probably be served as a side dish along with a few other dishes.  Typically dinner consists of 1 soup and 2 dishes (一汁二菜).  If the wife cooks 1 main and 3 sides (一汁三菜) if she’s better, and some even prepare 4 or 5 dishes , which is considered to be the tops for Japanese wives.  Now, the secret of many…  They often serve something called jobi-sai (常備菜)which means a dish which is always around (in the fridge), or things like Tsukudani, tsukemono, something from deli (they call it Depa Chika, which means Basement of Department Stores, where you can find all different kind of food stores and restaurant take-out (only) places.)  Probably in a regular non-Asian family tables, this would be served as a main dish, then it’ll be for two.

Iri-dofu  いり豆腐(Tofu Scramble)

Ingredients (Serves 2 as main dish, 4 as side dish)

  • Tofu (Momen, in the US, use medium or medium firm)  1 block (about 400g)
  • Tuna 1 can (6oz 170g), packed in olive oil kind preferered, DO NOT DRAIN OIL
    • If its in water, drain water well, use 2 TBS Olive Oil in step 3.
  • Eggs 2, beaten
  • Green onions, sliced 1/2 c (about 3)
  • Sake, 1 1/2 TBS
  • Soy sauce, 1 TBS
  • Kosher Salt, pinch (optional.  If not using, increase the amount of soy sauce to 1 ts to 1/2 TBS)

Directions

A note about the microwave:  As many of you know, the more powerful your microwave is, the shorter you need to cook.  Ours rotates, but is a very small one, the type that barely fits a dinner plate. So, if you have a newer, powerful microwave, please start with half of the time suggested, and add time little by little to obtain desired results.

  1. Drain water in a strainer for 5 min.  To make the next step faster, I scramble tofu loosely and put in a microwaveable container with a lid and a plastic strainer to collect water. Microwave for 3-4 minutes on high.  The easiest way would be to place it on a plate, microwave it without plastic wrap on high for 5 minutes, transfer it into a clean dish towel, wring out the water (please be careful, the water will be extremely hot!).
  2. Heat a pan or skillet with relatively wide bottom and short sides (to allow the water evaporate faster), then scramble the drained tofu with a wooden spoon on high  until water is evaporated.
  3. Add the entire can of tuna with olive oil kept in.  If using the tuna packed in water, add the olive oil before adding the drained tuna.   Mix well and continue to cook to coat the oil well with tofu.
  4. Add Sake, Soy Sauce and sliced green onions.  Continue to stir so that it will not burn.
  5. Add a pinch of salt in beaten egg, and pour it around the tofu.  Stir the tofu quickly with 4-5 chopstickes until firmer.  Serve hot.

Variations:

  • Vegitarian version: 
    1. Instead of tuna, use dried shiitake mushrooms soaked in water for about 30 minutes to 1 hour. To quicken the process, remove the stems, break it in half, soak in water with a pinch of suger mixed with right side up, and top it with a small plate so that mushroom will submerged in water.  Microwave for 2 min (for 4-5 shiitake.)  When the shiitake are soft, squeeze the water out, and slice them thinly (ideally about 1/5 or 1/6 inch, 4-5mm or less.)  Save the juice for later use since it adds a lot of umami (savory flavor) to many Japanese dishes. 
    2. Slice other vegetables such as carrots and snowpeas/green beans (for color and vitamin A and C) thinly and about 1 inch long.  Use a slicer if it’s more convienient.  If you prefer to cut them larger (1/2 inch cube), then make sure to either microwave or boil carrots until crisp tender. 
    3. At step 3, add oil and vegetables instead of tuna.  You may want to add a little more soysauce and some sugar (about 1/2 TBS) to add more flavor.
  • You can also use soaked and squeezed hijiki seaweed with other carrots, snowpeas.
  • For crunchiness, also try gobo (burdock root) or renkon (lotus root).  They oxidate easily, so as you cut, release them in water mixed with a bit of rice vinegar or white vinegar.
  • Instead of tuna, try ground chicken (or you can add this to vegetarian version.)
    1. After step 1, heat oil in a pan or skillet, cook ground chicken until well crambled.  Then add carrots, snowpeas and shiitake if using at this point.
    2. Add tofu and follow the directions, 2, 4 and 5.

Okonomiyaki (Japanese Stuffed Pancake) お好み焼き

Okonomiyaki in the skillet

Okonomiyaki in the skillet

One of the Japanese favorites, which is also loved by many non-Japanese is Okonomiyaki. It’s often called Japanese pizza, but in reality, it’s more of a pancake with a lot of stuff in it. So, I think it should be called Japenese stuffed pancake.

There are a few Japanese restaurants that serve only okonomiyaki in New York etc,  but most in the U.S. serve it alongside other dishes. In Japan, okonomiyaki is pretty much only served at a specialized okonomiyaki house. These restaurants normally have a hotplate in the middle of the table or the bar. You pick your ingredients in the combo you like, and the restaurant will give you everything in a bowl. (Okonomiyaki batter, shredded cabbage, and other ingredients such as veggies, seafood and/or meat.)  And you are the cook.  Put oil on the plate, wait till it’s hot, and pour in the mix.  Flip when one side is nicely browned, and wait till it’s cooked on both sides. Put the toppings you like,  slice it up and eat it HOT! That’s it.  I think okonomiyaki place is the most profitable kind of restaurant, because the customers pretty much does most of the work!  Plus, ingredients are inexpensive and readily available.

As you can imagine, you can easily make this at home. It’s really fun and easy to make, great for lunch, a snack or party, especially if you have a large hot plate. In fact, when I was about 4 or 5, I demanded that my mother cook me Okonomiyaki for my 3 o’clock snack every day. You can change the ingredients and use whatever (pretty much — thus named “Okonomi” means as you like, “Yaki” fried or grilled) you have in your fridge.

Some people like to add grated yamaimo (glutinous yam) or nagaimo (chinese yam) into the batter. If you can find them, try it — it will make the pancake even fluffier. There are people who add a little bit of cornstarch, baking powder etc. as well. You can probably use your own special pancake recipe without sugar and milk (replace it with cold water, although I’ve heard of people who makes Okonomiyaki with milk) and use it for the okonomiyaki base.  If you like green onions, you can skip or reduce cabbage, and add a whole bunch of green onions, and make “Negi-yaki” (green onion pancake).  Korean people have similar dish using grated potatoes.  I tried it with grated lotus root and steamed and mashed Japanese taro…  They had different texture, but I really liked it. 

Yes, the variation is limitless….  So try with something you have on hand, and let me know how it turned out!

Okonomiyaki (Japanese stuffed pancake) お好み焼き

Ingredients (1 large or 2 medium size okonomiyaki)

  • flour 2/3 c
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • cold water, 1/2 c (125cc) Depending on your preference, add or reduce water.
  • cabbage: thinly sliced and loosely packed 1c
  • Ingredients you like or have at hand.  You only need a little bit of these, especially if you plan to use many of them (1-2 oz):
    • Thinly sliced beef or pork (scrap are OK), cut in bite size pieces
    • shellfish (shrimps, calamari, bay scallops) cut in bite size pieces
    • sliced green onions, corn, shredded cheese,  etc.
    • Optional items available at Japanese or Asian markets
      • red picked ginger, smoked squid shreds (called kiri-ika)
      • fried flour batter crumbs (called age-tama or ten-kasu)
    • Toppings: Traditionally, mayo, Okonomiyaki-sauce, bonito flakes, green nori flakes (ao-nori).  See photo below.   If you don’t have Okonomiyaki-sauce, try A1, Lea Perrins, Ketchup, Mustard, BBQ sauce, Sriracha Chili sauce, etc.  It’s best to put mayo first and and something saucey on top.

Directions:

Piping hot Okonomiyaki with traditional toppings

Piping hot Okonomiyaki with traditional toppings

  1. Mix flour, cold water and beaten eggs well in a medium sized bowl. Make sure there’s no lumps. If there are any, pass it through a fine strainer or sifter. The texture should be thick and like batter.
  2. Add thinly sliced cabbage and green onions, other vegetables and seafood. Mix well. 
  3. If adding meat, cook first with a little bit of salad oil. Make sure it somewhat cooked before adding the batter.
  4. Heat the oil on hotplate or non-stick skillet until hot, then pour the mixture in. If using a hotplate, spread it to about 5-6inches diameter and 1/3 inch thick. If using skillet, spread it to the size of the skillet, and thickness should be about 1/2 inch. Cook till both sides are golden brown.
  5. Remove it to a plate, and garnish with your favorite toppings. Since the batter doesn’t have any seasonings, they should cover the entire surface (just like spreading mayo on sandwich bread.)

では、いただきまーす!(Bon Appetit!)