Thursday, December 23, 2010


niku jaga 002

Did you know that niku-jaga (lit. meat & potatoes) is the Japanese take on beef stew?? A long long time ago, when foreign traders first came to Japan, Japanese people saw that they were eating beef stew, and they tried to imitate it using what was immediately available. It soon morphed into what we all know and love today as niku-jaga. I think everyone makes their niku-jaga a bit differently, much like how everyone makes their own particular style of curry, but here’s how I learned to make this classic pseudo-Japanese item.

You will need:

  • 1 onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 4 or 5 new potatoes
  • pork, finely chopped (the kind you might use for shabu-shabu would be OK for this)
  • 7 ladles full of dashi (broth made from konbu and katsuo-bushi)
  • 1 ladleful of soy sauce (I’ll explain this measurement in the directions)
  • 1 ladleful of mirin
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • Optional: konnyaku noodles, green peas, or 1 tablespoon sake


*NOTE* I am going to reiterate that I am pretty bad at gauging the measurements for what I cook. I usually just add things to a pan or pot and it just magically turns out to be something worth eating 80-90% of the time! So, when my friend Ko-chan taught me how to make niku-jaga he explained that it was all about this 7-1-1 ratio. The 7-1-1 could be basically anything, cups, half-cups, ladles, etc. Since I have a miniscule kitchen and even tinier cookware, we decided to go with using the ladle to make the measurements. Please adjust the amount of onion, carrot, potato, and pork as necessary in accordance with however large you choose to make the measurements in your 7-1-1 ratio.

First! Halve or dice your potatoes, depending on how big or small they are. Cut your carrots into large chunks. Dice your onion as well.

Then! measure 7 whatever-fulls of dashi into your cooking receptacle! I used a pot! After this, add your 1 whatever-full of soy sauce, then 1 whatever-full of mirin! Simmer this liquid. Add the 1 tablespoon of sugar and dissolve. Then, put all of your vegetables into the liquid and bring to a boil. If you want to add sake to your liquid to give it a bit of a drier sweetness, this is the time to add it. Once the liquid has begun to simmer, make sure to taste it to see if any one flavor is overpowering another! You may find that your mixture is too soy sauce-ey or could use a little more mirin or sugar. Perhaps the entire flavor is too strong, and you need to add more dashi. Who knows. Adjust as necessary!

In a separate pan, brown your pork with a little bit of oil. It doesn’t have to be totally cooked to death, since it is eventually going into the boiling pot of veggies.

niku jaga 001

Once your vegetables have come to a boil, reduce to a simmer and add the pork. At this stage, you are going to want to cover the pot with either a lid or tinfoil. I don’t know why, but for some reason, the tinfoil skims all of the pork grime off of the top of the liquid, whereas a regular lid will not. Either way, you will end up with delicious niku-jaga. Simmer this until the potatoes and the carrots are soft enough to be pierced with a fork. If you’d like to add konnyaku noodles (as pictured) or peas (mostly for a color contrast) this is when to add them.

★ ★ ★

I know of some people who cook this stuff to death so that the liquid becomes entirely evaporated, but that isn’t really my style.. I like to have a little bit of the liquid remaining to keep everything in the bowl nice and happy and warm. I don’t usually drink it though, since there is a lot of salt in the soy sauce and (if I use the instant kind) dashi.

Let me know if you have your own take on niku-jaga. I’d be interested in knowing how you make it.

If you try this recipe, don’t' forget the 7-1-1 ratio!!!

serve steaming hot and enjoy!!!

★ ★ ★

niku jaga 004

P.S.:  Leftover niku-jaga makes for a very nice bento! I put some spinach dressed with sesame along with it, and some rice, of course.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is something that I, a student of Japan and its language, have been battling with for some time now. Many of you may remember an old post of mine containing a quote from Miyazaki Toten that reeked of despair and frustration. Not long after that, many of you e-mailed me and tweeted at me and left supportive comments and talked to me and just really gave me a lot of hope. I hope you all remember the follow-up post, where I decided to pick myself up and dust myself off. I will say now that yes, even now, I get frustrated, but I am now miles (kilometers?) from where I was when I wrote about giving up.

A while back, I had a conversation with Lindsey (!!!) about studying for the JLPT. She had made this awesome study plan and said something to the effect of, “we’re both teachers, we plan lessons for our students, why not do it for ourselves?” I mean, I had all of the materials sitting right in front of me, I hadn’t really been utilizing them to the full extent I could have been.

JLPT 002

So I threw myself into studying. I picked up those books and dug into them. I bought a notebook to write down all of the grammar points I was learning and the practice exercises that went along with them. I mean, I actually needed to physically write everything down into this notebook, instead of just circling the answers in the practice text. I found that if I actually did the writing myself, I was more apt to remember what was written down. Following this mindset, I also bought a graph paper notebook and used it to practice new kanji as well as some kanji I knew, but wasn’t entirely sure of how they were written. Luckily, I sit next to one of our school’s Japanese teachers in the office, and he gladly helped me when I wasn’t entirely sure of stroke order, usage, etcetera.

Wow was he helpful, and never ever once condescending or confusing. Sometimes when I ask people questions about word usage or idiomatic phrases, they tend to go off on a nihonjinron tirade that never really ever answers my original question and always succeeds in me saying “yes, I agree, you speak a difficult language…” but never following with, “… can you freaking help me now?!”

I think that perhaps the difference between him and all of my other Japanese teachers was that my teachers were teaching Japanese to me as a foreign language. Whereas, he teaches Japanese to high school students as like.. their first language. I mean, he’s the equivalent of what my English teachers were like in high school, making us read great novels and write essays and papers about them. Not so concerned with the correct-ness of the language, but more about how one communicates with it and its usage and written form. I wish I could have taken all of my Japanese in college from a teacher like him, but I suppose it was best that I learned my basics the way I did!!

I finally invested in an electronic dictionary, as time was of the essence!! It was, hands down, the best purchase I’ve ever made it my life!! I know how to use a regular-old paper Kanji dictionary, but let’s face it, those things are a pain in the butt to lug around and looking up kanji using the STEP method takes a fair amount of time. The electronic dictionary is a huge time-saver and convenience. I can even save all of the entries I’ve looked up with a flashcard feature, and review them later on. It has a pronunciation guide, thesaurus, encyclopedia, business dictionary, cookbooks, medical dictionary… etc. Totally a great purchase, even if it did set me back a couple hundred bucks.

Lastly, I’ll talk about the texts I used. I will provide links to them on, along with their reviews.

日本語総まとめ問題集 [2級文法編] and日本語総まとめ問題集 [2級漢字編]

these two texts are published by Ask publishing. When I looked at them in the bookstore, I appreciated the fact that they contained English explanations and (in the Kanji book) lots of useful vocabulary. Unfortunately, the English translations are poor and are in need of serious revision. When I was making my own notes in my notebook, I translated the example sentences myself so they would be easier to relate to and understand. The other axe I have to grind with these books is the fact that they have lots of really negative sentences in them, that just… kind of make you want to give up studying! They don’t really create any kind of positive attitude toward language learning!

For example:

  • この手紙の日本語は間違いだらけだ。
    The Japanese in this letter is filled with mistakes.
  • ひらがなさえ書けないんですから、漢字なんで書けません。
    I can’t even write hiragana, so of course I can’t write kanji.
  • 今の実力では、試験に受かりっこない。
    It is impossible to pass the test with my current abilities.
  • この作文は、日本語がめちゃくちゃで直しようがない。
    The Japanese in this essay is so bad that it’s impossible to fix.


I mainly bought this book to take and read on the train to and from work. It’s a nice size for commuting, and it comes with a red plastic plate so the words and furigana printed in red disappear and force you to memorize the vocabulary. It’s nice for short-term memory recall practice, but as a regular study method, I would personally steer clear of this kind of book.

and lastly,

日本語能力試験N1・N2 試験に出る読解―40日完成
Wow! I really loved this text the most out of all of them. Reading comprehension is probably my weakest section of the test, but this book is great as far as explaining the types of questions, giving you wonderful explanations of how to break down sentences and truly get a grasp of what you’re reading. However, this book is written entirely in Japanese, which makes it a little tiresome at first. I figured that since I’m taking a N2 test I should at least be able to read 80% of this book, so I shouldn’t complain that it’s written all in Japanese – that is what I’m aiming for. I WANT to be able to read and understand 100% of the book! So. I did my best and made my way through the N2 practice problems, and I did very well with this text, and I highly recommend it.

JLPT 003

I’d also like to mention that I used all of these texts in conjunction with the mass amounts of Japanese I already know. I do have a degree in this stuff, and without my background, I think it might be hard for an independent learner to work with these texts. On the other hand, everyone is different, and who am I to say what works for me may not work for anyone else!! I encourage everyone to find their own style and way to study whatever it is you’re passionate about! For me it happens to be Japanese. I loove Japanese. I love how it rolls off of my tongue and I love writing it mostly! I like all of the little idiomatic expressions and I even like the things that challenge me like humble speech and transitive/intransitive verb pairs. I think it’s really cool. Anyway. I’ll stop gushing over how much I enjoy this language and keep my fingers crossed that I did well on my test this year!!