Rengoku's Demon Slayer Bento (牛鍋弁当 - Gyunabe Bento)
Regardless of where you live, you've probably heard of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba (鬼滅の刃). It's a Japanese manga turned anime series that has become one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time, ahead of Pirates of the Caribbean and slightly behind Sesame Street. In case you haven't seen it, I won't spoil the story, but this beef bento box plays an important role in the Mugen Train story arc. In Season 2 of the animated series, we discover how demon slayer Kyojuro Rengoku winds up with stacks of these tasty bento's.
Demon Slayer is set in a fantasy world where demons feed on humans, and a secret society protects humanity from these supernatural threats. But the tale takes place during the Taisho-era in Japan, and there's a lot of Japan's cultural history woven into the storylines.
Gyunabe, which literally means "beef hotpot" in Japanese, was one of the first ways beef was consumed in Japan after the 1200 year ban on eating meat was lifted in the latter half of the 19th century. It evolved into dishes like Gyudon and Kanto-style Sukiyaki, but it may have also been used in bento like the ones Rengoku scarfs down.
Why This Recipe Works?
- Because Gyunabe was originally a hotpot dish, all the ingredients are cooked in the same pot together, making it easy to prepare. The added benefit is that the flavors of all the ingredients have a chance to intermingle.
- The sweet onions and paper-thin slices of tender beef soak up the savory-sweet sauce and distribute it onto the rice beneath.
- The creamy egg gives the bento a pop of color and richness, while the red pickled ginger provides a tangy, refreshing contrast to the rich bento.
- Gyudon is usually made with a dashi-stock base, but because Gyunabe has much less liquid, it works better for bento as the rice won't get soggy.
Ingredients for Gyunabe Bento
- Beef - Ideally, you want to use beef that's been cut on a meat slicer for sukiyaki. I like using one with good marbling, which makes it melt-in-your-mouth tender. You should be able to find beef cut for sukiyaki in Japanese grocery stores, and most Asian supermarkets will carry it labeled as "beef for hotpot." If you can't find it near you, you can partially freeze a tender cut of steak and then use a very sharp knife to slice it against the grain so that the slices are about the thickness of a credit card.
- Onions - Onions and beef are a classic combo, and they add a nice sweetness to the Gyunabe. I like to cut my onions on the thick side for this dish.
- Tofu - You want to use firm tofu for this as it makes it a lot easier to handle. In Japan, we have a special type of tofu called yakitofu (焼き豆腐), which has been grilled on the outside to make it even firmer. If you can't find it, you can make your own drying and torching the surface of firm tofu. You can also just let tofu drain on a wire rack for an hour to get it to firm up and brown it in the pan.
- Tokyo Negi - We have several varieties of scallions in Japan. The most common one in the Kanto area is a thick-stemmed variety called Naga Negi or Tokyo Negi. It's also called a "Welsh Onion" in the West. Although it may look like a thin leek, the flavor and texture are closer to an ordinary scallion. If you can't find this type of Negi near you, you can substitute scallion stems.
- Sauce - Although Gyudon is a descendant of Gyunabe, the latter has preparation and flavor that's closer to Kanto-style Sukiyaki. Instead of being cooked in a dashi-based stock like Gyudon, Gyunabe is cooked with a sweet and savory sauce. Originally this sauce was made using miso, but by the time the events of Demon Slayer unfold, the dish was most likely made with a combination of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar. The purpose of the sake and mirin is to add umami and sweetness to the dish, and their alcohol content evaporates while cooking. If you want to learn more about why sake is used in Japanese cooking, check out this series of videos on sake and food.
- Rice - Short-grain rice is the predominant rice consumed in Japan, as the sticky texture is deemed to go well with Japanese foods. That being said, any rice or alternative grain/seed that you enjoy eating will work for this.
- Soft Boiled Egg - A regular soft-boiled egg will work here, but I like using a seasoned egg called Ajitsuke Tamago, which is sometimes referred to as a "ramen egg."
- Benishōga - Benishōga literally means "red ginger" in Japanese, and it's a type of pickle made with young ginger and ume vinegar. The red color traditionally comes from red shiso leaves, but these days most places add coloring agents.
How to Make Rengoku's Gyunabe Bento
To make the Gyunabe, preheat a frying pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add the oil and swirl it around the pan before adding the tofu and Negi. Be careful as the hot oil will spatter when you add the tofu. The goal is to brown the tofu and lightly char the Negi. This took me about two minutes.
Flip the tofu and Negi over and push them to one side of the pan. Add the onions, sake, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar, and reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook the ingredients together, flipping them over periodically until the tofu is well seasoned and the onions are tender. This should take about six minutes.
Add the thinly sliced beef on top of the onions, and then swish it around in the liquid until it's no longer pink. Provided the meat is sliced thinly enough, this should only take about a minute. Don't overcook the beef, or it will get tough.
To pack the bento add a serving of rice to the bottom of two bento boxes. Then you want to split the beef and onions onto the right two-thirds of the boxes.
Layer the benishōga, tofu, and Negi over the remaining third of the rice and then finish each Demon Slayer bento with one half of the soft-boiled egg.
Other Beef Recipes
Gyunabe(牛鍋), which means "beef hotpot," was one of the first ways beef was prepared in Japan. It is unclear whether it was used as a topping for bentos, but it is plausible that ekiben vendors were selling the dish in a portable fashion, as depicted in Demon Slayer.
Ekiben, which means "train station bento," is a class of Japanese bentos prepared and sold by vendors near train stations in Japan. In the early days of train travel, the journeys were often long, and ekiben were portable meals that could be purchased and taken on the train to eat during the trip. These days, it's become a way to explore the culinary culture of each area in Japan, with even the most obscure rural stations having a local specialty packed into their ekiben.
Gyunabe is a three-syllable word that's pronounced as follows:
gyu like hug you
na like knob
be like belt
In Japan, bentos are usually eaten at room temperature, but you can certainly reheat it as long as you pack the bento in a microwave-safe container.
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 175 grams tofu (cut into thick squares)
- 100 grams Tokyo Negi (1-inch slices at a 30° angle)
- 100 grams onions (½ small onion sliced thick)
- ¼ cup sake
- ¼ cup mirin
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons evaporated cane sugar
- 250 grams beef (thinly sliced for Sukiyaki)
- Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add the oil and then add the tofu and Negi in a single layer. Fry these undisturbed until they're browned on one side (~2 minutes). Flip them over and then push them to one side of the pan.
- Add the onions along with the sake, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar. Let these simmer over medium heat until the onions are tender (~6 minutes). Flip the ingredients over periodically to ensure they get seasoned evenly.
- Add the beef and stir it around in the braising liquid to cook it through. The Gyunabe is done when the meat is no longer pink. Don't overcook it, or the beef will get tough.
- To pack the bento, add a layer of rice to the bottom of the bento box and top the right ⅔ with the Gyunabe.
- Add some benishōga to the top left edge of the box and then stagger some tofu on top of it.
- Layer some of the Negi on top of the tofu, and then finish your Demon Slayer bento box off with half of an Ajitsuke Tamago.