Japanese Meat and Potato: Nikujaga

I think potatoes are the most misunderstood vegetable in the produce kingdom. People blame potatoes for today’s obesity epidemic when, in fact, they’ve done nothing but bring filling and affordable meals to families around the world. It’s not the potatoes that make people fat! It’s the oil that fast-food joints fry them in, and the mayonnaise that we drench them in, that put extra poundage around our midsection! Let’s recognize this starchy veggie for what it really is – a purely satisfying and versatile gift from nature!

A potato dish that is very near and dear to my heart is a Japanese staple called Nikujaga, which quite literally means meat (niku) and potatoes (jaga, from “jagaimo,” for potato). But make no mistake about it — despite the similarity in names, this Japanese comfort food is very different from the American version of “meat and potato” that consists of mashed starch with a piece of steak. This dish is more of a stew, with meat, potatoes, onion, and other deliciousness simmered in sweet, soy sauce-based broth. It’s a little bit like the French Pot Au Feu, with a sweet, Japanese twist.

As long as you incorporate the “must haves” of potatoes, onions, and carrots, sky is the limit when it comes to what other good stuff you decide to put in nikujaga. Some folks put snap peas for the vibrant color and crunchy texture, while others put in a pasta-like Ito Konnyaku (an acquired taste but it’s very tasty once you get used to the bouncy texture). You can even decide what kind of meat you wish to use, from thinly sliced beef to luscious bacon. I usually use bacon slices in mine because I love the rich flavor these pork fats bring to the entire dish, and I always happen to have them around.

As some of you may already know from this post, I am on the budget mission this month. I am determined to spend as little as possible on food, without compromising the quality and flavor of each dish. I picked up three pounds of potatoes earlier this week and I’m am going to experiment how much the sac of these little lovelies, as well as other cost-conscious ingredients, allow me to stretch my budget. 🙂

Nikujaga (Japanese Meat and Potato “stew”)
Serves 4, as side dish.
It’s really good served with a bowl of rice and miso soup.

3 large potatoes, diced
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 carrot, diced
3 slices bacon, cut into small pieces
1 green onion, for garnish
Olive oil, for sautéing

2 cups of dashi (click here for recipe – yep, it’s from Alton Brown, a non-Japanese, but it’s a good one.  He is wonderful.)
4 tablespoon Mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine. You can find it in regular grocery store, in the Asian food aisle)
4 tablespoons sake
4 tablespoons agave nectar (regular sugar works fine)
4 tablespoon soy sauce (I use the low-sodium kind but any kind will work)
A pinch of salt

1. In a large pot, sauté the onion and bacon in olive oil in medium heat until onion is cooked (but not yet translucent). Add potatoes and carrots and cook for about 5 minutes. Make sure to coat each potato with oil.

2. Add dashi and cook for about 10 minutes.

3. Add mirin, sake, agave nectar, soy sauce, and a pinch of salt to taste.

Note: Now, a little about the trio of soy sauce, sake, and mirin (very syrup-y sweet cooking wine). This three-condiment combination serves as the flavoring agents for so many of Japanese cooking, from sukiyaki to kinpira to nimono. If you taste a subtle sweetness in a dish, you can assume that this trio was used in it. Luckily, these ingredients are really easy to find nowadays in a regular supermarket, and if you’re interested in exploring the amazing cuisine that is Japanese, I recommend that you stock them up in your refrigerator. As for sake, any of your favorite kind will do. And for soy sauce, I like the low-sodium kind (that typically comes in a green cap as opposed to the red one), but the regular ones are wonderful too.

4. Cook for about 20 minutes until potatoes are cooked but not too mushy. Some recipe ask you to cook down the liquid but I actually like it a little soupy!  Serve with some green onion garnish.

Another Note: Now, here the tricky part. It is believed by Japanese cooks that nikujaga is best when chilled first, then reheat right before serving. I guess it allows potatoes and other veggies to soak up the yummy broth. Yes, it is very difficult to wait for a few hours until you eat it but if you have the time, definitely do it. If not, go ahead and indulge immediately!

Nikujaga is one of the more popular dishes in Japanese homes. I remember having it at least once a week at home and it made regular appearances in school lunches. It’s a perfect dish to feed a hungry family for cheap. It is very quick and easy to make, that I wish college kids would make this on a hot plate in their dorm rooms, instead of eating one of those chemically-laden cup-o-noodle things! The recipe does call for a little bit of sake, but underage kids can certainly omit that and still maintain the delicious flavor. I think they can make this on a crock pot too! Seriously, this dish is heaven! I hope you will give this dish a try!

Total Cost:

Potatoes:  About $1.00 for three large ones
Onion:  About $0.50 for one large one
Carrot:  About $0.50 for one large
Bacon:  About $1.25 for 1/4 of a pack
Green Onion:  I grow my own so it’s free!
Condiments:  I already have them in the fridge for it’s free too!
Total:  $3.25 per serving and this serves four (as a side dish) so each plate is $0.80It’s less than a buck!

I do realize that buying sake, mirin, and soy sauce for the first time may cost a bit but you’ll be happy that you have them later!

3 thoughts on “Japanese Meat and Potato: Nikujaga

  1. Hi Saori! Give this recipe a try! It is a little on the sweeter side compared to mom’s but if you like it less sweet, just reduce the amount of agave and add slightly more soy sauce! I love that Japanese dishes are usually very affordable!


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