Sukiyaki is, as esteemed noder Hectibus describes in mouthwatering detail above, a delicious beef dish that is both sweet and savoury in all the right ways. By Japanese standards, Sukiyaki is a fairly modern traditional dish, having come into being over the last several hundred years. Although sukiyaki is considered to be "nabe-ryouri", that is, a Japanese hot-pot dish, it was originally cooked in a completely different fashion -- outside, on the back of a plow or spade.
Etymology of sukiyaki (Contains Unicode.)
The word sukiyaki is often written in hiragana as すき焼き or すきやき, but the correct kanji usage is 鋤焼き.
鋤 - plow or spade
焼き - cook, fry, grill, roast
Before the Meiji Restoration, common buddhist principles led to a general shunning of the cooking and eating of meat. Cooking meat inside the house was unthinkable, as the smoke and smell would desecrate the butsudan, a small buddhist altar which worships family ancestors. (Etchu, 2002)
Some people think that the term sukiyaki, to cook over a spade, already existed as a method of frying fish, which being rather smelly and smoky, is best cooked outside. It follows that when eating of beef was first introduced by Europeans in the late 1500s, the meaning gradually changed to refer to the eating of beef. Others believe that the term was first invented after eating beef became somewhat common, and has always referred to beef.
Another theory is that the dish may have originally got its name due to the thin slices of meat (suki-mi 剥身) involved. (Webster) Due to the prevalent cooking method, the character usage was corrupted to the above. (Koujien)
The etymology suggests the change in style of this dish. As the verb "yaki" implies, sukiyaki was originally fried on a metal surface, thus considered a teppan-yaki dish. As beef, along with other western conventions, gradually became acceptable in Japan, sukiyaki moved from the fields back into people's homes. This led to the nabe dish which is modern sukiyaki.
Differences between American and Japanese sukiyaki
- American sukiyaki tends to use leaner steak cuts, whereas Japanese sukiyaki often uses fattier, marbled wagyu.
- The traditional dipping sauce in Japan is a lightly beaten raw egg, which is not so popular in America. Some American restaurants use a peanut sauce, which is actually quite similar in proteiny creaminess.
- In Japan, the "firm" tofu is actually momendoufu ("cotton tofu"). It is much softer than "firm" tofu found in American supermarkets. Yakidoufu (broiled tofu) is also commonly used in sukiyaki.
Sukiyaki is also great served on top of a bowl of rice as a donburi dish. The distinction between sukiyaki-don and gyuu-don (beef bowl) is a bit blurry.
- Kojien 5th Ed. Electronic version.
- Free Light Software. Japanese Dictionary of History and Traditions. Available online at http://www.hikyaku.com/dico/histxtg.html
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Online edition. Available at http://www.m-w.com
- ETCHU Tetsuya. 2002. European Influence on the "Culture of Food" in Nagasaki. Available online at http://www.uwosh.edu/home_pages/faculty_staff/earns/etchu.html