While donburi's made with beef have been around for well over a century in Japan, these days, gyudon (牛丼, literally "beef bowl") is synonymous with one of 3 large fast food chains: Yoshinoya, Matsuya, and Sukiya. Which chain comes to mind, depends on who you're a fan of, with subtle differences in flavor setting each one apart.
Of the three, Yoshinoya is by far the oldest, with its original restaurant having started in 1899 at the Nihonbashi fish market (the predecessor to Tsukiji fish market), where it churned out bowls of seasoned beef and onions over rice for hungry fishmongers and buyers alike. To this day, Yoshinoya's signature gyudon is a cheap ($3.25 USD as of 1/17/2016), satisfying meal targeting students and the working class, though recently they've started offering premium menu items in an effort to win back customers lost to competitors.
After Japan banned US beef imports in late 2003 due to the BSE scare, the gyudon industry entered a crisis. As stocks of cheap US beef disappeared, Matsuya and Sukiya responded by sourcing beef from other countries, but Yoshinoya stubbornly refused to compromise on quality, replacing their signature gyudon with butadon (pork donburi) instead. 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.
Here's my rendition of Yoshinoya's famous gyudon. It's truly as simple to make as it looks and yet it makes for a satisfying meal. There are a few tricks to get this to turn out right. The first is to use a cut of beef from the underside of the cow. My personal favorite is short rib meat, sliced paper thin against the grain. Not only is it fatty and flavorful, by slicing it very thinly, it shortens the amount of cooking time required to render the beef fall apart tender.
If you're a die hard Yoshinoya fan and want to get the exact same taste, you're going to need to use Hondashi granules (which contains MSG) to make the dashi, but personally I find this a little heavy-handed, resulting in an artificial taste, which is why I prefer to use home made dashi. Additionally, purists, prefer to have their gyudon unadorned, but I like adding toppings such as benishoga (red pickled ginger), scallions and sesame seeds, which contribute layers of texture and taste.
- Add the dashi, white wine, sake, soy sauce, and sugar to a pan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
- Add the onions and cook for 3 minutes.
- Add the beef, and turn down the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.
- Cook until the beef is tender (about 10 minutes). Adjust salt to to taste.
- Serve the beef over bowls of hot rice, with some of the cooking liquid poured over the beef and rice.