Way back in the olden days when we lived in Osaka and our children were small we lived in a lovely 900 sq ft apartment (it wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be with 5 kids - in fact it was quite liberating). We lived on the third level of the building, the Harada family lived two floors directly below us. Harada-san was the perfect practical older sister that I very much needed. She helped me with the daily demands of our children's school and taught me to make many of the Japanese dishes that we ate regularly and are now comfort food for our family. I have fond memories of our tiny identical kitchens and the time we spent talking and cooking together. Her patient, gentle approach was so perfect for me right then.
One of the very first dishes we made together was nikujaga. Literally meat potatoes. Everything Harada-san made was a no-recipe affair. Just some of this, some of that, and taste, smell, taste. When I decided to make a pot of nikujaga to share here I thought perhaps I would check some formal recipes just because and to my great surprise not a single one of them was quite like the dish I had been taught. To be fair, nikujaga is kind of like making chicken noodle soup in that every cook has their own particular version. But the big shock was that in many (if not most) versions the meat and potatoes are served on a plate without the wonderful broth they are braised in. Such a shame! Made with miso and soy sauce the broth is rich and interesting with that nifty umami thing going on - to be honest the meat and potatoes are pretty bland without it. Harada-san served hers more like a soup or perhaps stew and that is the way we have always had it in our house. So that is the recipe you get today.
When we lived in Osaka I was told that the people in Tokyo are very fashionable but Osakans are the better cooks. It is certainly true that Tokyoites are very fashionable but I don't know about the cooking. All I know for sure is that there are definitely regional variations in traditional dishes. That difference may account for the broth-less nikujaga or maybe I just learned it the way that Harada-san liked to serve it. It certainly accounts for the use of pork as opposed to beef - pork being the Kansai preference. My own contribution is one that no self-respecting Japanese cook would countenance - I never peel the potatoes!
It is perfect winter food. Warm and richly flavourful without being heavy. Fragrant. Comforting and comfortable. I cannot even smell this without remembering Harada-san and feeling a wave of gratitude for her firendship.
8 0z pork shoulder cut into 1" cubes
6 small red potatoes, quartered
2 medium onions, chopped
4 carrots, cut into 1/2" pieces
6 cups dashi*
6 Tbsp mirin
4 Tbsp sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp grapeseed oil
1 tsp roasted sesame oil
sea salt to taste
Heat the grapeseed oil in a large heavy pot and saute the meat on high until it is beginning to brown. Add the potatoes, onions, and carrots and cook together for two or three minutes. Pour the dashi into the pot and bring everything to a boil. Turn the heat down to simmer. Add the mirin, sugar, and soy sauce. Cover and simmer until the vegetables are tender. Just before serving stir in the roasted sesame oil. Add salt to taste.
This is even better with a sprinkle of shichimi - a mix of dried peppers and sea weed. You may need to go to an Asian market to find it but it is so good and you will like it on lots of dishes so it is worth the looking.
*The easiest way to make the dashi is with Hon dashi granules from Ajinomoto. Again look for that in an Asian market. But to be honest making it from scratch is pretty fast and easy too. Google it if you want to give that a go ... or find your own Harada-san :)