Think you know Japanese food? Yes? Pop quiz: which are the five most famous rice-bowl dishes from Japan? I’m sure you know the answer: Tonkatsu-don, Ten-don (tempura), Unadon (grilled eels), Oyako-don (chicken and eggs), and finally, the most basic of all, the Gyudon.
Fast Food, Not Junk
What exactly is a “don”, you ask. A Donburi is a Japanese fast food, consisted of a bed of steamed rice and some toppings over it, The Japanese character “丼” represents the image of a bowl with a pickled plum, which was once the only topping to go with rice for the peasants. Today, there are dozens of rice-bowl formulas, many of which are very simplistic in the most Japanese fashion, like the Gyudon.
In my opinion, what really distinguishes Japanese cuisine is not about extravagant presentation, even though it has become a myth nowadays that Japanese food always has to look pretty. Japan isn’t, and has never been, a land of excess and plentiful as the modern plating seems to suggest. Farmlands, minerals, fuel… everything would be in shortage without imports. So, to make the most out of what they had on hand, Japanese cooks developed a style that focused on extracting as much flavor as possible from ordinary ingredients. Gyudon, a rice bowl topped with poached beef, is a perfect example.
Gyudon – More Than Just Rice And Beef
OK, I know “poached beef” doesn’t sound very exciting, but that’s where the cooking technique shines. Usually, without some serious Maillard Reaction, beef tends to be bland and tasteless. On the other hand, beef cuts rich in fat can be very flavorful. The strategy behind Gyudon is to amplify the Umami from fatty, thin slices of beef, using seaweed, fish and soy sauce. In this post, I will show you how to execute a perfect bowl of Gyudon that will surprise anyone with the flavor hidden beneath the plain appearance.
A good Gyudon begins with a good dashi. Dashi is a broth from dried kelp and dried bonito flakes. It has a unique smokiness from the bonito flakes, and an intense umami due to the glutamic acid extracted from the kelp. Dashi is the base for many Japanese soupy dishes, such as miso soup, Oden (a stew of mixed ingredients), and of course, the Gyudon.
The Kombu, or dried kelp, must be treated with respect and patience. Start by soaking the kelp in a pot of water over night. This soaking water will become the dashi later, so measure the amount accordingly. For a piece of 6 x 8 inch kelp, add about 4 cups of soaking water. The soaking process not only re-hydrates the kelp, but also extracts some flavor out of it.
Then, for 4 cups of dashi, prepare one cup of loosely packed bonito flakes, plus another half cup it for the second boil.
It’s All About Respect
Start by heating up the kelp along with the soaking water in a pot over medium heat. Do NOT bring it to a full boil. As soon as large bubbles begin floating to the top, kill the heat and add one cup of bonito flakes. Cover and wait for 15 minutes. This “poaching” step dissolves the flavor from the bonito flakes without losing too much of the smokiness through rapid boiling. Once 15 minutes are over, filter the broth through a paper towel, and move the kelp and flakes back into the pot for a second round of boiling. You don’t want to throw away the kelp just yet – remember, it needs patience and respect.
Add another 2-3 cups of water to the left-over kelp and bonito flakes, and again bring to a near-boil. Turn off heat, and add the rest of the dry flakes. Repeat the above poaching process and filter again through paper towel. At this point, you have extracted most of the flavor from the ingredients, and collected enough dashi for Gyudon, as well as a generous side of miso soup.
Don’t Forget The Rice
Oh, how can you make a don without rice? You’ll definitely need Japanese short grain rice. It has a chewy texture and doesn’t become mushy when mixed with broth. Most packaged Japanese rice provides good instructions in the back, so just grab your trusty rice cooker and follow the recommended water/rice ratio.
Now, let’s talk about the beef. Gyudon requires fatty beef that’s thinly sliced. One source of such beef is from certain Asian supermarkets in the frozen meats section, where you may find sliced marbled beef for Chinese hotpot. If that is not available, I have seen both Kroger and Walmart carrying sliced beef for Carne Picante, which also works pretty well for Gyudon. You don’t need to do anything with the beef – just have it properly thawed and rested in room temperature for 30 minutes.
The Seasoning Sauce
Finally, prepare the main seasoning – soy sauce, ginger, and Mirin cooking wine. For one pound of beef, you need about 3-4 tablespoons of soy sauce, plus the same amount of Mirin. Combine the soy sauce and Mirin and bring to a boil in a small sauce pan. Meanwhile, finely mince about one tablespoon of fresh ginger. Pay close attention to the smell of the sauce. You want to get rid of most of the alcohol, so only turn off the heat after the strong smell of alcohol is gone. Once removed from heat, stir in the ginger, and worship the wonderful aroma.
Congratulations! After all this hard work you have prepared all of the main building blocks for a good Gyudon. Now it’s time for the icing on the cake. I’m talking about onions, scallions, and a juicy Onsen egg. OK, the Onsen egg is not easy to make so I’d say it’s optional. But, without it you can’t say you cooked Gyudon like a boss!
Onsen Egg: What Really Makes You The Boss
So, what is Onsen egg? One blessing that comes with the curse of being on an earthquake zone, is the ubiquitous hot springs, or Onsen. When the hot spring’s temperature is just right, which is around 50-60 degrees Celsius, it can be used to poach eggs. The egg white comes out soft and runny like a custard, while the yoke has congealed but still soft and appears uncooked – this is known as Onsen egg. Evidently we don’t have hot springs in the house. If you have a sous vide machine, it’s pretty easy to do – just set it to maintain a temperature and drop the egg in. But if you don’t, worry not! All you need is a probe thermometer and a hefty cast iron dutch oven.
Fill the dutch oven with enough water to cover the eggs. Clip the probe thermometer on the dutch oven, so that the tip of the probe is submerged in the water but not touching the bottom. Use your smallest burner, first at medium heat to bring the water temperature to about 149 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cover the dutch oven with the lid, but leave about an inch of opening to prevent overheating. Turn the heat down to low, and closely monitor the temperature. You want it to stay between 149 and 155. If it gets too hot, open the lid more and turn the heat lower. Add cold water if the temperature gets above 156 to quickly cool it down. Keep this poor-man’s sous vide apparatus steady for at least 30 minutes. Then, you can turn off the heat, fully cover the lid, for the egg to remain warm until serving time.
It sounds quite simple, but controlling the temperature without a sous vide is very challenging. It took me three attempts to produce the perfect Onsen eggs, so be patient and keep practicing! This is how you know that you did it right: a properly cooked Onsen egg feels like the exact opposite of a soft-boiled egg. The white should be opaque but still runny. The yoke should be orange and firm to the touch. When you stab the yoke with a spoon, there should be NO liquid oozing out.
While your eggs enjoy their hot bath, you can slice up some onions. The more the better! If you use smaller onions, prepare at least two for one pound of beef. The onions will be cooked along with the beef so the slices should be thicker. The scallions, on the other hand, should be sliced as thinly as possible since they are the final touch.
Finally, The Gyudon
Rice steaming along nicely, check. A pot of dashi, check. Beef rested in room temperature, check. Soy, Mirin, and ginger sauce, check. Onions and scallions sliced. Eggs swimming in hot spring. It’s time for the final assembly!
Add about 2 cups of dashi in a large skillet, bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the sliced onion (not the scallion!) and the sauce, bring to a boil again.
Turn the heat down to low, and stir in the beef. You don’t want to overcook them so do NOT bring the mixture to boil again. Closely monitor the color of the beef while you stir them. As soon as they don’t appear pink outside any more, kill the heat. The residual heat will continue to cook the beef to medium doneness.
For the rest of the dashi, you can heat it up and stir in some miso according to your taste, and garnish with a pinch of sliced scallions. A nice hot cup of miso soup is the best drink to wash down the intensely flavored Gyudon.
For plating, first make a mound of rice at the bottom of a bowl. Cover the rice with some beef and onion. Scoop in about one-third cup of the juices – don’t worry, the rice will soak them up all nicely and it won’t turn into Ochazuke! Then, proudly crack one of your Onsen eggs on the top. Yes, just crack it like a raw egg, and everything will fall out of the shell altogether. Finally, sprinkle a generous amount of scallions over everything. Take a hundred pictures, post on Instagram, and eat after it gets cold.
Nope, just kidding. Skip the pictures and dig in while it’s steaming hot!
Check out my other Restaurant At-Home recipes!
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