Ahhh, hotpot. The word always brings back memories of sitting around the dinner table with my family on a cold winter’s night, dunking our favourite ingredients into the simmering pot of broth.
Sukiyaki (すき焼き) is a type of nabemomo (鍋物) – a hotpot dish – like oden. It is cooked and served at the table. It is a popular winter dish, and is eaten as a celebratory dish once payday has come (since the main ingredient, good quality beef, is expensive). Thus it is considered a treat – not something to have every night.
“Sukiyaki” – The Name
The most common way to write “sukiyaki” is すき焼き. But it does have a proper kanji-based name, which is written as 鋤焼. The kanji suki (鋤) means “spade”. The dish was so named because it originated from a dish cooked by farmers on their spades during the Edo period (1603-1868). The farmers would use their spades like a teppan (a flat iron grill) to cook sweet potatoes, game, fish, and tofu. By using their spades as a cooking implement, they did not have to carry as much equipment with them.
There is also a theory that says the name came from sukimi (剥き身), which means ‘thin sliced meat or fish’. Which makes sense, since sukiyaki uses thin slices of meat.
Sukiyaki was the name used in the Kansai region when the dish first appeared on Japan’s culinary scene. It was known as gyuu-nabe (牛鍋) elsewhere, particularly in the Kanto region. Gyuu-nabe literally means “beef pot”. Nowadays this dish is commonly known as sukiyaki all over Japan and the world. However there are subtle differences between gyuu-nabe and sukiyaki. Gyuu-nabe is essentially a grilled dish, while sukiyaki is primarily a simmered one. More about this in the following history section.
An interesting fact: back in 1961, a Japanese singer by the name Sakamoto Kyu penned the classic “Ue o muite aruko” (上を向いて歩こう). It translates as “I walk looking up”, but when it made its way over to the US, it was given the name “Sukiyaki” instead! Whoever made this decision did so because they thought it would be easier for Americans to pronounce, and easier for them to associate to Japan. The song became a big hit in the States, and it has absolutely nothing to do with its food namesake. You can listen to the song here.
A History of Sukiyaki
Sukiyaki has a relatively short history, originating sometime during the late Edo period (1603-1868). Before this time, eating meat – particularly beef – was generally prohibited. Horses and cows were prized because of their usefulness in the fields. Furthermore, during the 8th century, Buddhism was introduced in Japan. Buddhist laws prohibited the killing of quadrupeds for food.
However whenever a war was on, soldiers were given meat as a means to build up their strength. Developing a liking for it, when these soldiers returned, they cooked their own on their spades over hot coals. Of course without access to beef, pork and similar, they made do with fish and fowl. This was the first version of sukiyaki.
When the Meiji Restoration began in 1868, the dish developed into gyuu-nabe. With Japan’s doors open to foreign countries, the Japanese were introduced to ingredients such as eggs and beef. As per meat, it was no longer banned – in fact, the Japanese were encouraged to eat plenty of it, and a popular way to do so was in gyuu-nabe. Gyuu-nabe was developed at a restaurant called Araiya, in Yokohama. Not surprising since Yokohama was (and still is) one of Japan’s major port cities, and so it had first access to all those new foreign ingredients. In gyuu-nabe, slices of beef are cooked one by one in an iron pot with a savoury miso seasoning. It became immensely popular; people associated this dish with the advancement of Japanese civilisation and wealth.
At first, beef was imported from countries like China, Korea, and the United States. Later on, breeders in Kobe began to rear cattle for local consumption. Kobe beef is now known globally as a premium meat due to its fine marbling, and is a popular choice for sukiyaki (…and is what makes it so expensive to have).
Gyuu-nabe was altered slightly in the Kansai region. After grilling the meat, people added a host of other ingredients and topped off the lot with broth, effectively changing the dish into a boiled dish. They also dipped the cooked ingredients into raw beaten egg before consuming. This became known as sukiyaki. Both gyuu-nabe and sukiyaki became popular in their own regions, but the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake (1 Sep, 1923) cause many beef restaurants across Kanto to shut down. Sukiyaki was then introduced in Kanto, where the Kanto people made their own adjustments to the dish.
Kanto v Kansai Style Sukiyaki
Like many Japanese dishes, sukiyaki is slightly different depending on where you’re eating it or who’s cooking it.
Kansai-style sukiyaki starts off by grilling the meat in the nabe. When the meat is nearly cooked, it is sprinkled with sugar, sake, and soy sauce. The meat is transferred to individual bowl and eaten before the rest of the ingredients are added and topped with broth.
In Kanto-style suikiyaki, a sauce called warishita (割り下) is made and then all the ingredients, including the meat, is cooked in the warishita. Warishita is a mixture of dashi, soy sauce, sweet sake, dry sake, and sugar.
Generally beef is the main choice of meat, but using other types of meat or ingredients will result in different ~sukis:
- Uo-suki (魚すき): fish
- Tori-suki (鳥すき): chicken
- Udon-suki (うどんすき): udon noodles
The suffix ‘~suki‘ in this case means “to cook in the style of sukiyaki“. In Hokkaido and Niigata, pork is mainly used due to the price of beef. In the Shiga and Aichi prefectures, chicken is the preferred meat.
And of course, you can still get gyuu-nabe in Yokohama.
Making and Eating Sukiyaki
The main thing with sukiyaki is to get good quality beef. In Japanese supermarkets, they will usually have beef that is specifically cut for sukiyaki – labelled as such. The Japanese believe it is important to use high quality ingredients so you can savour the flavour. Because you need to splurge on the meat, each person only consumes between 120-150g of it. Purchasing marbled meat is important so that it doesn’t become chewy after being cooked sukiyaki style.
Other common ingredients are:
- Napa cabbage
- Shirataki (白滝): chewy translucent noodles made from konnyaku
- Kikuna (菊菜): edible chrysanthemum leaves with a distinctive herbal taste
When the ingredients are cooked, the diners fish them out of the pot and dips them into their own individual bowl of raw beaten egg. Raw egg has a sweetness to it that balances out the savoury flavour of the meat and other ingredients quite well. It also provides a smooth mouthfeel. While this practice originated in Kansai, it is now common in both Kansai-style and Kanto-style. Of course if you decide to consume raw egg, only use fresh eggs.
So now you know all about this comforting winter dish. Although Sakamoto might have sung that “happiness lies beyond the clouds”, I would wager that happiness can also lie in a bowl of hot bubbling sukiyaki.
Gonzalez, L (translator) 2016, ‘A Japanese Cuisine Staple: how to eat sukiyaki’, Matcha, 15 February, viewed 6 August 2017, <https://matcha-jp.com/en/1483>.
Homma, G 1991, The Folk Art of Japanese Country Cooking: a traditional diet for today’s world, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, pp. 43.
Itoh, M 2015, ‘Sukiyaki Recipe’, Just One Cookbook, 11 February, viewed 6 August 2017, <http://www.justonecookbook.com/sukiyaki/>.
New World Encyclopedia 2015, ‘Sukiyaki’, 26 October, viewed 6 August 2017, <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Sukiyaki>.
Pogogi 2013, ‘The Story of Sukiyaki’, Pogogi, 7 February, viewed 6 August 2017, <https://pogogi.com/the-story-of-sukiyaki>.
Sushi and Sake, n.d., ‘Sukiyaki’, viewed 6 August 2017, <https://sg.sushiandsake.net/special/food/detail_11>.
Swinnerton, R 2009, ‘Araiya: celebrating beef by the Yokohama bays’, The Japan Times, 1 May, viewed 11 August 2017, <http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2009/05/01/food/araiya-celebrating-beef-by-the-yokohama-bayside/#.WY0oGHcjHow>.
Ref 1: https://www.meetup.com/Its-so-Tasty/events/216933642/
Ref 2: https://matcha-jp.com/en/1483