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By Xinle Su

As the archetypal Japanese Salaryman trudges through the long hours at work, he can choose to console himself with what stands as possibly his greatest comrade: the Beef Bowl, or gyudon. Tucking in heartily into the beef-laden rice, he feels energized once again, with his beer belly protruding ever so slightly more than just a few minutes ago. It is at once a kind of soul food, while also being possibly the most plebeian non-instant meal which can be whipped up and served in less than two minutes by the server. It is a culture in and of itself that should be preserved for posterity: the solitary art of gobbling up meat with white rice that is now tainted with a kind of sweet sauce – an unusual sight considering how the Japanese like their rice perfectly white. But the Beef Bowl is no normal dish.

Tokyo Chikarameshi, one of the newcomers to the gyudon industry. Photo by author.

Tokyo Chikarameshi, one of the newcomers to the gyudon industry. Photo by author.

Tracing the Roots of the Beef Bowl

Today’s sukiyaki, once called gyunabe (literally beef pot, or beef simmered in a pot), is not-so-surprisingly, where the inspiration for the Beef Bowl was received. Back in 1862, the first gyunabe restaurant took its physical form as half of an existing Yokohama watering hole called Isekuma. Then, gyunabe had no tofu nor shirataki noodles – unlike the diversity of vegetables and assorted side dishes served in sukiyaki now – but had only beef and onions. Furthermore, to remove the stink of the meat, miso dipping sauce was used. Within 30 years after the first gyunabe restaurant opened, the first Beef Bowl restaurant opened, in a bid to complement gyunabe, by offering miso-flavored gyunabe-stewed rice. The shoyu-flavored Beef Bowl as we know it now only became so after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 which brought flavouring characteristic of the Kansai region to the Kantou region including Tokyo.

Distinguishing between the True Beef Bowl Gourmets and the Novices

While it was mentioned that gobbling down a Beef Bowl can be seen as an art, it is easier to distinguish between the true Beef Bowl gourmets and their lesser amateurs from the complexity of their orders. Any self-respecting salaryman would know his tsuyudaku’s from his tsuyunuki’s, and what it means to get an upsize of the atama (literally, head). With so many possible ways to customize one’s Beef Bowl order, it is not an exaggeration to say that one innocuously-looking Beef Bowl can take on around a hundred different physical forms, especially at the very first Yoshinoya branch located at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market. Here are some examples:

1. Tsuyudaku, Tsuyudakudaku or tsuyunuki

Tsuyudaku means to have additional portions of the sweet sauce and tsuyudakudaku means to have even more sauce than tsuyudaku. On the other hand, tsuyunuki means to completely not have any sauce on your rice – something not comprehensible to me, but nonetheless worth a try if it means you are able to relish the unadulterated fusion of meat and rice without the distraction of the sauce.

2. Nikushita

While most Japanese rice bowls have ingredients simmered over them, it may be interesting to have your rice over your meat for a change. In that case, nikushita is the magic word.

3. Torodaku or toronuki

While toro conventionally refers to fatty tuna, it is used here to refer to fatty beef. Depending on whether one feels like one could use more or less fats that day, one could unabashedly tell the server torodaku or toronuki respectively.

It is thus that the ubiquity of Beef Bowl stores has belied the rich history and careful dedication to each and every bowl served. Fast food is synonymous to junk food in most contexts nowadays. However, the organically-Japanese fast food served in Yoshinoya is at once indulgent in its fatty meat, while offering nourishment to the salaryman’s soul and tummy in a way that junk food cannot. The next time one heads to the nearest Beef Bowl chain store, one may want to attempt the above phrases a la the salaryman.

 

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