What is Gyudon
Although these days Japan is famous for their Wagyu beef, using cattle for food is a relatively new concept that dates back to the latter half of the 19th century, when Japan opened its doors to foreign trade. One of the first areas to welcome foreigners was Tokyo, which is why it’s no big surprise that Gyudon got its start there.
As with most new ingredients that work their way into a culinary culture, beef was initially in a way that was familiar to Japanese people: as a hotpot (鍋 – nabé). The new dish became known as Gyunabé (牛鍋), and it was the precursor to modern-day Sukiyaki, as well as Shabu Shabu, and Gyudon. In the latter part of the 19th century, enterprising vendors started selling gyunabe on top of a bowl of rice, as a kind of fast food, and ti was called Gyumeshi (牛めし – “beef rice”).
One of those vendors was a guy named Eikichi Matsuda who was from a town called Yoshino near Osaka. He opened a small stall at Nihonbashi Fish Market in 1899 selling a hearty meal called Gyunabé Bukkake (牛鍋ぶっかけ – “covered in gyunabe”) to the workers at the market. After the Nihonbashi market was destroyed during the Great Kanto Earthquake, Matsuda moved Yoshinoya to the new market located in Tsukiji in 1926. Gyudon remained a specialty of the Tokyo area until the mid 20th century when Yoshinoya started expanding outside of Tokyo.
To get an authentic Gyudon taste, you need to use a cut of fatty beef. This not only keeps the thin slices of beef moist, but the fat itself also contributes a smooth richness to the sauce. Yoshinoya is famously picky about their beef and only uses short-plate from American beef. They created a stir in 2004 when the BSE scare (and the ensuing ban on US beef in Japan) caused them to replace their iconic beef bowl with a pork bowl. For context, this would be akin to McDonald’s halting sales of hamburgers in the US and replacing them with chicken burgers.
As stocks of cheap US beef disappeared, Yoshinoya’s competitors Matsuya and Sukiya responded by sourcing beef from other countries, but Yoshinoya stubbornly refused to compromise on quality and price, sticking with pork until the ban was lifted over two years later. While some consumers simply switched brands, some loyal Yoshinoya fan’s went to the lengths of visiting the chain’s foreign locations to enjoy their beloved Gyudon.
Short-plate can be a bit hard to find, which is why I like to use boneless short ribs for my Gyudon. It tends to have good marbling and is a little more tender than short plate. Regardless of what cut of beef you use, it’s crucial to slice the meat thinly against the grain. This is what makes it possible to cook the meat for such a short amount of time and yet still have it come out tender. If you’re friendly with your local butcher, you can try asking them to cut it for you on a meat slicer, or you can lightly freeze the beef and then use a very sharp knife to slice it into sheets that are about 1/16 of an inch thick (~1.4mm).
I’ve tried a bunch of different types of onions here including Welsh onions, and leeks, but I always end up going back to plain old yellow onions. That’s because they tend to hold their shape the best. Juicer varieties such as sweet onions, tend to turn to mush when you cook them for too long, and red onions discolor, taking on an unappetizing grey appearance.
Because Gyudon originated as a hotpot, it’s prepared in a similar manner; with the beef and onions cooked in a savory sweet broth. I like making mine with a combination of dashi stock, white wine, sake, soy sauce, and sugar. The white wine contributes just a hint of acidity while adding a fruitiness that brings out the sweetness of the onions. The sake adds plenty of umami, and the soy sauce seasons the broth.
If you’re a die-hard Yoshinoya fan and want to get the same taste, you’re going to need to use Hondashi granules (which contains MSG) to make the dashi. Personally, I find this a little heavy-handed, resulting in an artificial taste. That’s why I prefer to use a batch of dashi prepared using my homemade dashi recipe.
While purists, tend to prefer their Gyudon unadorned, I like adding toppings such as benishōga (red pickled ginger), scallions and sesame seeds, which contribute layers of texture and taste. Here’s a list of some of my favorite condiments for Gyudon:
- scallions – Brown on white isn’t a very flattering look, and a sprinkle of scallions helps add a splash of color while fortifying the flavor of the onions in the Gyudon.
- benishōga – benishōga or “red ginger” is young ginger pickled in the tangy juices produced while making umeboshi (pickled plums). Although these days the color is often added through different means, it was originally colored by the red shiso leaves added to umeboshi. The tangy, salty pickles add a nice color and taste contrast to the beef, and the ginger helps smooth out the rough edges of the beef.
- sesame seeds – toasted sesame seeds not only add a wonderful texture to the Gyudon, but they also give the donburi a wonderful nutty flavor that pairs beautifully with the beef.
- onsen tamago – onsen tamago, or “hot spring egg”, is essentially a sous vide egg. It’s cooked in its shell at 145.5 degrees F for about 45 minutes, which renders the egg white soft and custardy while thickening up the yolk and giving it a rich buttery texture. Gyudon is a bit of an outlier amongst donburi’s in that it doesn’t include any egg, and adding an onsen tamago on top fixes this minor oversight.
- aonori – aonori literally means “green nori” and they come in flakes that can be sprinkled on top of things. They’re most famous for going on dishes like oykonomiyaki and takoyaki, but they add a touch of color and fragrant oceanic aroma that’s a delicious take on surf and turf.
For beef bowl
- 1 cup
sweet white wine (such as Riesling or Gewürztraminer)
beef (very thinly sliced)
onion (~1/2 large onion, thickly sliced
cooked short-grain rice
sesame seeds (optional)
scallion (chopped, optional)
benishōga (red pickled ginger, optional)
Add the dashi, white wine, sake, soy sauce, sugar, and onions to a pan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
Turn down the heat to maintain a simmer and cook the onions until they're mostly translucent (about 3 minutes)
Add the beef, and turn down the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring regularly until the meat is tender (about 10 minutes). Adjust salt.
Serve the beef over bowls of hot rice, with some of the cooking liquid poured over the beef and rice. Garnish the Gyudon with sesame seeds, scallions, and benishōga.