If you ask Japanese people what the first meal they like to have when they get back to Japan is, odds are the answer is either going to be sushi or gyudon. If you polled the Japanese populace about their favorite quick lunch, odds are also very high that gyudon would be in the top three. Everyone knows what sushi is, but what is this gyudon thing and why is it so popular?
Gyudon is simple in result (spoiler alert: It’s just beef and onion on rice), but nuanced in execution. It all starts with a strongly flavored soup base that is mostly water, but judiciously accented by soy sauce, Japanese rice wine (sake), sugar, and usually a dried soup base called “hondashi,” which is something like a Japanese bouillon cube, but made using katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) instead of chicken. This all gets heated up, and then the onions go in. A few minutes later, the beef goes in. At this point, the party is really getting started. After around fifteen minutes of simmering, the beef and onion delight is ready to be ladled on to a steaming bowl of rice. A little of the juices should be allowed to tag along with the beef and onions, but not so much that the rice loses its stickiness.
Enough with all the technical talk. It’s time to get down to the oh-so-tender meat of things. And the oh-so-soft onions, but not so soft that they are mush. The beef and onion have absorbed the soup base, and cross pollinated each other too. The onions are now not just soft, but sweet too. This harmonious mix is, predictably, an even more fantastic affair once it hits that mound of white rice, especially when accented by some thinly slice, pickled red ginger. Chopstick full by chopstick full, the marriage of flavorful beef and onions with white rice brings lunchtime satisfaction. Not that you can’t have it for dinner — or even breakfast, if you are wild like that! Speaking of wild, sprinkle on a little shichimi (seven spice mix) for an extra kick! Gyudon, as you will soon come to understand, is one of the most popular foods in Japan for good reason!