Friday, July 02, 2010

Suki na Mono

I can't say that I particularly miss Yoshinoya, the Japanese fast-food chain most familiar for its gyudon (stewed beef and onion, mostly, atop a bowl of white rice). But there is something nostalgic about being far from something so familiar. (When I was in Tokyo, I sometimes got similar cravings for Spam.)
Anyway, my hunger was for that familiar taste, with something more substantial in the way of flavors. I can't give a recipe, exactly, because the quantities are more a matter of taste than chemistry. But it begins with thin-sliced beef. It's not so easy to ask a supermarket butcher to basically ruin his lunchmeat-slicing machine by making 1/16-inch slices of sirloin, so I made do with prepackaged carne insalata beef, then sliced it thin myself at home. Another way around it is to buy sirloin, chill it to near-freezing, and slice it thin with a very sharp knife. The rest of the recipe is sweet onion (tama negi), scallions (naga negi), ginger (shoga), thin-sliced bell peppers, garlic, sesame oil, toasted sesame seed, soy sauce, brown sugar, red wine, sake, and corn starch.
Slice half of a medium sized onion thin, slice the scallions diagonally, thin-slice the peppers and ginger, chop the garlic, and marinate the beef, onions, garlic and ginger in a combination of the sesame oil, soy sauce, brown sugar, red wine, sake and corn starch. Drain the liquid and stir-fry the beef-onion-ginger combination on high heat to brown. Remove it back to the liquid. Wipe the wok or fry pan and stir-fry the peppers, then add the cooked meat-onion combination with the remaining juice. stir to thicken the sauce, then remove to serve over a bowl of rice. I use a combination of white and brown Japonica (short grain), but whatever rice you use, steam it with a quarter-cup of sake for outstanding flavor.
Garnish the bowl with some fresh cilantro and wash down with a beverage of your choice. This probably won't put Yoshinoya out of business, but it sure satisfies that craving for gyudon!
Gyudon has its roots in sukiyaki, a relatively familiar treat of beef (usually) and vegetables cooked at the table. It's hard not to think of Kyu Sakamoto's 1963 hit known outside Japan as "Sukiyaki," although the song had nothing to do with food. In fact, the song, which was the only Japanese-language song to top the Billboard Hot 100 in that year, is actually titled Ue o Muite Aruko (I'll Look Up When I Walk), which I guess has a hint of nostalgia in it as well. The sense of the song is that the guy singing holds his head up when he walks so his tears won't fall so fast. As happy as it may seem to those familiar with the original, and seeing Sakamoto smile while singing it, it's kind of a bittersweet feel-good song.
In the 1960s, Japan was finally emerging from its post-World War II trauma to the point many families were able to at least aspire to, if not yet own, the "Three Cs," (car, cooler -- air conditioner -- and color TV). Beef, for years an unaffordable luxury, was again within reach of most households, and sukiyaki was something a typical Japanese family could treat itself with.
So, for the poor salary-droid oyaji who drink themselves past the last train, the familiar orange Yoshinoya sign, usually near train stations (Yoshinoya took over most of the Dunkin Donuts chain's locations when that franchise went belly-up in the 1990s), gyudon has a nostalgic aspect well beyond its ability to take the edge off a night of too much sake.