The Japanese Table / Foreign food part of the evolution of washoku

Yomiuri Shimbun photo, in cooperation with Ecole de Cuisine Egami

Nikujaga simmered meat and potatoes, a popular Japanese dish that incorporates foreign elements

By Takashi Nishiuchi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThis series discusses washoku traditional Japanese cuisine as it is now and its future. This installment takes a look at the characteristics of washoku. Japanese people have continued trying to hand down what should be preserved while also making changes, such as carefully incorporating elements from foreign cultures into the cuisine and emphasizing seasons and regular annual events.

One of the major characteristics of washoku is that it has evolved while incorporating elements of different cultures. This process continues today.

When the weather becomes hot, a cold shabu-shabu dish called rei-shabu appears on the dining table more frequently. The dish consists of thinly sliced boiled pork or beef served cold on top of lettuce, tomato and other ingredients. Eating it with sesame dressing is popular.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A cold shabu-shabu dish called rei-shabu combines cold boiled meat with salad vegetables.

Since rei-shabu is a dish combining shabu-shabu, a Japanese dish, and salad, a Western element, it clearly represents the characteristic of washoku merging with foreign food cultures.

“It can be called a new and popular dish in the Heisei era,” an official in charge of public relations at House Foods Corp. said. The Heisei era began in 1989.

In 1995, the company gave the name rei-shabu to a dish combining cold shabu-shabu and salad, and launched special dressings for it, such as sesame miso, as well as a soy source dressing with lemon and grated daikon radish.

“Before such dressings appeared, many people apparently ate cold shabu-shabu only with grated daikon radish or banno-negi green onions,” the official added. “Our company is said to have proposed eating cold meat with salad in consideration of the nutritional balance and its summer-like colors.”

In 2015, Japanese recipe site Cookpad conducted a survey of about 3,000 people. With multiple answers allowed, about 60 percent of respondents chose rei-shabu as a cold dish they like to make in summer.

The original rei-shabu dish appeared in 1968 when sukiyaki restaurant Imaasa in Tokyo began offering the dish in summer. The dish was eaten with sesame sauce or ponzu sauce.

“Within a month after we began offering the dish, one restaurant after another followed suit,” Shiro Fujimori, 83, a former president of the restaurant, said.

At that time, the dish was not offered in the form of a salad, but was simply meat served on top of ice on a plate.

It is said that shabu-shabu hot pot dates back to the postwar period, with the name shabu-shabu given to it by a beef restaurant in Osaka.

In fact, it is also said that shabu-shabu has its roots in a Beijing hot pot dish that uses mutton. Rei-shabu became a popular dish as a result of combining foreign cultures and Japanese people’s efforts.

Japanese food has been influenced by foreign countries since ancient times. Many ingredients such as rice, vegetables and potatoes were introduced to Japan from overseas at various times and improved upon by Japanese people.

Ayako Ehara, a professor emeritus of food culture history at Tokyo Kasei Gakuin University, said, “Japanese people honed their knowledge and skills to make use of the natural features of their own regions, such as the water and weather, which enabled them to integrate foreign food cultures into their respective regional dietary habits and create their own dishes.”

After the Meiji era (1868-1912), more and more people began to eat meat and continued devising different ways to eat it, such as in sukiyaki and other dishes that use soy sauce and mirin to give it a Japanese taste. People also began eating tonkatsu pork cutlet with rice using chopsticks.

“Various eclectic dishes have been devised. Some were short-lived fads, while others that are suited to Japanese people’s lifestyles took root in their lives and remain there today,” Ehara said. “Washoku seeks to improve itself, and is changing all the time.”

Even in recent years, popular dishes combining Japanese and foreign cultures have appeared one after another, such as Japanese spaghetti, tofu hamburg and onigiri rice balls with tuna and mayonnaise.

What dishes will we see next?

Recipe for nikujaga

Many people may have the impression that nikujaga simmered meat and potatoes is a typical washoku dish. However, potatoes originated in Latin America, and were introduced to Japan in the Edo period (1603-1867). Round onions originated in Central Asia and came to be used widely in Japan after the Meiji era. Beef also spread after the Meiji era, when the Japanese diet became Westernized. There are various theories about the origin of nikujaga, such as that it was originally a dish for the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Ingredients (serves 2):

100 grams thinly sliced beef

200 grams potato

100 grams round onion

50 grams carrot

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp sake

1 tbsp mirin

½ tbsp sugar


1. Separate the beef slices. Roughly chop potatoes into large pieces and rinse in water to remove any harsh flavor. Roughly chop carrots into pieces slightly smaller than the potato pieces. Cut onion in half vertically, then slice each half lengthwise into 1-centimeter-wide slices.

2. Put 2 tablespoons of cooking oil in a pan and heat. Fry carrots, onions and potatoes over medium heat. When thoroughly coated with oil, add beef and continue to fry. When the meat becomes brown, pour in just enough water to cover all the ingredients. Simmer for about 10 minutes.

3. When the potatoes become soft enough to pierce with a bamboo skewer, add all the seasonings and simmer with an otoshi buta drop lid until the liquid has almost entirely evaporated. Finally, remove the lid and cook over high heat, which will give the dish a nice sheen.

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