Nikujaga is a Japanese dish.
A dish made of beef or pork, potatoes, onions, konnyaku noodles and other ingredients stewed together with soy sauce, sugar, and mirin (sweet cooking rice wine). It is typical to use beef in western Japan and pork in eastern Japan. It originated in the Imperial Japanese Navy and was introduced as a dish for sailors because it was high in nutrition and well-balanced, and also because it was easy to supply the ingredients as they were the same as Navy curry.
Story about its Origin
Heihachiro TOGO, who studied in Portsmouth, England from 1870 to 1878, very much enjoyed beef stew he had there, and after he came back to Japan he tried to have it served as an on-board dish. However there was no wine or demiglace sauce, and the head chef who was ordered to cook beef stew had no idea what it was in the first place. It is said the head chef made the first nikujaga with soy sauce and sugar based on an image of beef stew which he built from the story given by Togo. Some say this is a dramatized story, but stewing beef with soy sauce and sugar is the same method used to cook sukiyaki (thin slices of beef, cooked with various vegetables in a table-top cast-iron pan) and yamatoni (beef cooked in soy sauce). As it was very easy to serve as military food because it used the same ingredients as Navy curry (capable of limiting the number of items to supply), it became a regular meal in the Navy. However it did not become popular as a dish in the general public probably because it uses beef and potatoes which were not yet familiar to the Japanese those days (gyunabe (Japanese hot pot with beef and vegetables) was for eating out and yamatoni was canned food, both of which were not home cooking). It was in the beginning of 1960s when nikujaga came back as home cooking after the blank in post war days, and it is said that it was in the first half of 1970s at the earliest when it actually became a regular dish. Nikujaga has become representative of home cooking as a synonym for "good old home cooking." Beaf stew and currey rice became popular at the same time, in sync with a trend that beef and potatoes, which are ingredients of both beaf stew and currey rice, became popular at home in Japan. Nikujaga was called "amani (sweet pot)" at the time and was very popular.
"The Textbook of Cooking at Navy"
The following is the recipe of nikujaga in "The Textbook of Cooking at Navy" published in 1938 by the Naval Paymasters' School (held in Maritime Self-Defense Force Maizuru District Headquarters):
Add oil and supply with air. Add beef after 3 minutes. Add sugar after 7 minutes. Add soy sauce after 10 minutes. Add konnyaku and potatoes after 14 minutes. Add onions after 31 minutes. Finish cooking after 34 minutes.
Disputes on its Origin
Maizuru City, Kyoto Prefecture declared the city to be the "birthplace of nikujaga" in October, 1995. Kure City, Hiroshima Prefecture also declared itself to be the "birthplace of nikujaga?" (added "?" in consideration for Maizuru City, which made the first declaration).
Their grounds are as follows. Maizuru City: Maizuru Chinjufu (a navy base) was the first place of Heihachiro TOGO's assignment as Admiral, and the oldest existing recipe of nikujaga was donated to Maizuru District Headquarters by the deceased who used to be a cook on a naval vessel belonging to Maizuru Chinjufu.
Kure City: Togo was appointed chief of staff of Kure Chinjufu ten years before he was dispatched to Maizuru.
However, as the data is unclear and the dispute is not yet settled if the oldest recipe was really written in Maizuru or copied from a recipe having been passed from another chinjufu, both cities have made a decision worthy of Solomon, saying "both Maizuru and Kure are the birthplace." Details of the above mentioned story are found in "Navy Nikujaga Story: a Root Finder Tells a History of Food Culture in the Navy" (Kojinsha, 2006). Today we see many activities in which Maizuru and Kure collaborate with each other to gain attention for nikujaga and their cities associated with the Imperial Japanese Navy, while announcing they are in rivalry.