“Sukiyaki” was the title of a hit song in 1963. Sukiyaki as well as sushi and tempura are among of the most popular Japanese dishes for foreign visitors. Founded in 1895, Ningyocho Imahan sukiyaki restaurant is now celebrating its 120th anniversary. Executive Vice President Tetsuro Takaoka tells the story behind this authentic cuisine.
Sukiyaki was originally homemade cuisine for special occasions. In Japan, beef was first popularized during the mid-Meiji era (1880s-1890s) when it was still an expensive rarity. People could only eat it at a feast.
The most common way to cook sukiyaki is with beef. You can add sweet scallions — eaten in winter when nabe (hot pot) dishes are popular - yakidofu (grilled tofu), leafy fragrant shungiku (garland chrysanthemum), sweet Chinese cabbage, shirataki (konnyaku noodles), and o-fu (wheat gluten).
“There are different styles of cooking sukiyaki in Kanto (east Japan) and Kansai (west Japan). The Kanto recipe begins with pouring a medium warishita sauce made of soy sauce, mirin (liquid sweetener), sake, and sugar into the pan. Whereas in Kansai, the beef is seared lightly in fat with scallions in the pan, and then seasoned with thick tamari soy sauce and sugar,” says Mr. Takaoka.
Sukiyaki at Ningyocho Imahan combines the best of Kanto style that uses warishita sauce and Kansai that doesn’t. A legacy of over 100 years of nabe cooking, warishita is poured into the pan, just enough to cover the bottom. When boiling starts, a beef slice is spread, placed in the pan, and “fried.”
Mr. Takaoka says, “If slices overlap, the taste loses focus. Turn the slice over when the warishita and meat bubble up and the color at the edge turns from pink to brown. When the meat is rosy it’s medium rare, and for those who want medium done, wait and take a deep breath once or twice. If you prefer well done, breathe two or three more times. Meat texture and taste differ according to heat.”
After you’ve finished eating the first slice, it’s time to add scallions to the pan. While these cook, have your second slice of beef (repeating steps above). When the meat is done, the scallions will be ready, too.
Mr. Takaoka advises, “We recommend you courageously try dipping fast-cooked sukiyaki ingredients into raw egg. Eggs we serve are delivered to us on the same day they’re laid. The fresh mouthfeel of egg brings out the taste of beef and vegetables, and you can enjoy sukiyaki to the fullest with egg dip.”
After eating beef and scallions, next comes tofu. Since tofu needs time to absorb the sauce flavor, place it in the pan in advance. The only problem is that it gets very hot. That’s why Imahan recommends dipping tofu into egg.
The shiitake mushrooms should be lightly fried on both sides — the bottom side first and next the cap. When liquid is released from the gills, it’s time to eat the shiitake while the texture is still firm. Shungiku (garland chrysanthemum) that easily wilts with heat is best eaten crispy to enjoy the fragrance.
Sukiyaki is a nabe (hot pot) cuisine with a robust flavor and many ingredients, but be careful not to cut corners on how you cook it, as the taste can be ruined easily. The Kanto-style recipe using ample warishita for mild taste is for cooking under any condition, yet it tends to spoil the true natural flavor of the meat and vegetables.
“At Imahan, our serving ladies attend each table and take care of the cooking so our guests can eat all ingredients at the best timing. Actually, our chefs say they cannot match our attendants who actually cook and serve the food at the very last stage,” says Mr. Takaoka.
To improve the quality of their services, Imahan chefs and attendants gather three times every month to conduct training and role-playing. Such efforts and practice support the longtime success of Imahan taste.
This tool is used to mix the raw egg in a bowl for dipping sukiyaki and maximizing its taste. Three bamboo prongs help mix yolk and egg white without damaging the egg. This is an indispensable device for skillful preparation of the egg without creating bubbles.
This egg-shaped utensil called nise-tamago is made in an Aritayaki ceramics factory. It’s considered best to crack an egg with another egg, with one egg remaining in the end. That’s why Imahan uses this imitation egg to crack eggs — one of many services at a sukiyaki shop.
Our cast-iron sukiyaki pans are exclusively custom-made by traditional craftsmen with a 400-year history in Nambu region, Iwate pref. The model shown is used for two persons, and a larger-sized pan serves a party of three to five. Pans are said to improve iron intake — good for health.