One element of Japanese cuisine is that it celebrates the seasons. Japanese dishes feature what is fresh and seasonal, and are cooked in such a way that is appropriate for the seasonal weather. During the winter, hearty soups such as oden are commonly found, as are hot pot meals such as sukiyaki.
Sukiyaki is a type of one-pot dish that is cooked table side in a shallow cast-iron pot. Traditionally, it contains beef, but some parts of Japan use pork. Vegetarians can substitute tofu and big, meaty mushrooms such as matsutakes.
Other ingredients are added, such as negi (a Japanese leek,) konnyaku noodles (these are called shirataki), and shungiku. Soy sauce, sugar, and mirin is added, and everything is cooked quickly. Sukiyaki is served communal-style, with each diner placing ingredients from the pot into a small bowl and eating. Traditionally, the food is dipped in raw beaten egg before being consumed, but you can omit this step if you like.
A note about the meat: I bought prepackaged, shrink-wrapped sukiyaki beef at Nijiya Supermarket in San Francisco Japantown. It came with a block of suet, which is essential; you use the suet to oil the sukiyaki pot before cooking. I thought that the package was rather expensive, so for my next sukiyaki meal, I went to Whole Foods and asked for a block of beef suet, which they gave to me for free. I cut the suet up in 1-inch cubes and individually foil wrapped them, and placed all of the foil wrapped pieces in a Ziploc bag, and they are all in my freezer awaiting future use. For the meat, I went to one of the local Asian butchers in Chinatown and had them give me a piece of well-marbled tender ribeye meat and I sliced it myself at home. Sirloin can also be used. Sukiyaki cuts are about 1/8-inch thick.
Traditionally, a cast-iron sukiyaki pot is used, but you can use any frying pan. If you don't have the means to cook this table side, don't worry; just cook it on the stove and bring the pan to the table quickly.
Basic Beef Sukiyaki, Kansai Style
Tender, marbled meat sliced 1/8-inch thick and about 2 inches wide to 6 inches long. Count on 5 ounces of meat per person.
1 1-inch block of beef suet
4 pieces of baked wheat gluten (kuruma-bu) - buy online. Soak these in water before using and squeeze out the excess water.
1/2 block yakidofu (grilled tofu) - if you can't find this, buy a block of firm tofu and place it in a baking dish with some of its liquid, to keep it from sticking to the dish, and broil for a few minutes on each side until nicely browned.
1 pack of shirataki (konnyaku noodles) drained - buy online
1 negi (a Japanese leek) - if you can't obtain these, substitute 3 scallions. Negi can be purchased online. These should be sliced diagontally in 2-inch long pieces about 1/4 inch thick.
1 bunch of shungiku
About 1 cup of mushrooms of your choice: enoki, matsutake, King Trumpet, or shiitake, sliced 1/8 inch thick
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup mirin
3/4 cup soy sauce
Keep in mind that you probably won't use all the ingredients at once since the pot won't hold everything. Expect to go through the cooking process more than once, As with most hot pot dishes, you often continue cooking more while you are eating what you just finished cooking.
Heat the sukiyaki skillet. Melt the beef suet over low heat. When the skillet is well-oiled, add the negi or scallions and fry lightly. Spread the beef slices over the negi and cook quickly. While the beef is still partially red, add 3 tablespoons each of the sugar, mirin, and soy sauce.
Add the mushrooms, drained shirataki noodles, yaki-dofu, reconstituted wheat gluten, and season with more sugar and liquids. Before the beef is overcooked, add the shungiku and cook until soft. Eat the ingredients, and repeat the cooking process again, starting with the beef suet.
(Images: Kathryn Hill)