A traditional Japanese meal usually consists of a main dish, some side dishes, and a bowl of soup. This Japanese pork and vegetable soup lumps the main dish, soup, and sides together into a hearty stoup (stew+soup) that makes for a complete meal when paired with a bowl of rice. Easy to prepare, delicious and satisfying, Tonjiru is the ultimate winter comfort food. In fact, it’s so iconic that it’s featured in the opening credits of Midnight Diner, a show about a hole-in-wall diner in Tokyo that dishes out comfort food to its eclectic cast of patrons.
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Why This Recipe Works?
- Thicker cuts of pork with plenty of marbling make for a more substantial soup that straddles the border between soup and stew.
- Browning the pork lends the soup more flavor due to the Maillard reaction.
- Contrary to common wisdom, which recommends adding miso to soups last, for Tonjiru, I prefer adding it at the beginning, which ensures the vegetables and pork end up well seasoned.
- Using a wide variety of winter vegetables makes for a more interesting texture and taste.
Ingredients for Tonjiru
- Pork – In Japan, Tonjiru is usually made with either pork belly or pork shoulder that has been sliced paper-thin at the butcher(about 1/25-inch thick). This makes it cook quickly, so it can be thrown together in only a little more time than it takes to make miso soup. I usually make it with slightly thicker slices (about 1/3-1/4-inch thick) because this is easier to do without a meat slicer and because I like my pork soup a little more substantial.
The key is to use a cut of pork with a lot of fat; otherwise, the meat will end up dry and stringy. My favorite is pork jowl because of the way the fat is marbled into the meat, but other fatty cuts like pork belly and short ribs work well.
As for the amount of meat, most traditional recipes call for a minimal amount of meat relative to the veggies. It’s not unusual to see a recipe that calls for an 8:1 ratio of veggies to meat. The main reason for this is that Tonjiru is often made as a budget meal to feed many hungry mouths with as little money as possible. Since pork isn’t all that expensive outside of Japan, and my primary focus is on taste, I usually go for a much higher ratio of veggies to pork. This recipe is about 4:1 and still makes for a relatively light soup. If you want something a little more hearty, I recommend using a 2:1 ratio of veggies to meat.
- Vegetables – There’s a lot of flexibility here, and in our household, we use whatever we have in the fridge. That being said, traditional additions include burdock, daikon, taro, onions, and shiitake. I sometimes like adding other root vegetables like sweet potatoes or parsnips, and squash like kabocha or butternut can be nice as well.
- Other additions – Tonjiru can also include other filler ingredients to bulk it up. For example, the version featured in Midnight Diner also includes torn pieces of konnyaku (a firm jelly made from the konjac yam) and firm tofu. I like adding shirataki noodles (zero-calorie noodles made from konjac yam) to mine, which adds a nice textural element while bulking the soup up.
- Soup – If you prepare Tonjiru with a high ratio of pork (2:1 veggies to pork or higher), you can use water for the liquid as you’ll get plenty of flavor from the pork. Since most traditional recipes use much less pork, dashi is usually used as the soup base.
- Seasoning – When it comes to seasoning, there are two schools of thought: miso or soy sauce. The former makes for a more hearty, flavorful soup, while the latter produces a lighter, more delicate soup. My personal preference here is for miso, but you can easily substitute in soy sauce. Just add a little at a time, tasting it until it’s seasoned to your liking. This is also a good way to add the miso because different types of miso can have wildly different amounts of salt. The only other seasoning I usually add is a splash of mirin, which adds umami and lends a mild sweetness to the soup.
- Garnishes – Tonjiru is usually garnished with scallions and shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice chili flakes). I also sometimes like to add a little citrus zest like yuzu or Meyer lemon to give it a splash of brightness at the end.
How to Prepare Burdock for Tonjiru
Burdock is a plant that grows almost everywhere. It gets its name from the prickly burs that form at the top of the stalk, and these burs were the inspiration for velcro. In Japan, we eat the long taproot that grows underground, and it’s known as gobo(牛蒡). It’s loaded with fiber and minerals, and its long shelf life makes it a popular root vegetable in winter soups like this Tonjiru.
Due to its high concentration of polyphenols, burdock tends to rapidly when exposed to air. You can arrest this by keeping any cut surfaces covered in acidified water. That’s why you always want to keep a bowl of water with some vinegar added when you’re preparing burdock.
After peeling it, I like to cut burdock using a method called sasagiri to whittle thin slivers of the taproot into the bowl of water.
How to Make Tonjiru
Tonjiru is a classic home-cooked meal, and the preparation can be as simple as throwing all the ingredients in a pot together and cooking them. That being said, a few steps can be added that make the finished dish taste even better.
The first thing you want to do is brown the pork, which gives the soup more flavor and umami thanks to Maillard browning. To do this, I heat a heavy-bottomed pot like a Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it’s nice and hot. Then I add a little oil along with the pork, spreading it into an even layer. You want to let the meat fry undisturbed until it starts to brown and then give it a stir to redistribute it and brown the other side.
Now you want to add the daikon, taro, carrots, shiitake, and scallion stems and stir-fry them until they start to become fragrant. You should have a nice layer of brown fond at the bottom of the pot at this point, and you want to deglaze this by adding the mirin. This releases the flavor from the pot while evaporating the alcohol in the mirin.
Next, you can add in the shirataki and dashi and then rinse the burdock to remove any vinegar taste and add that in as well. Turn the heat up to bring this to a boil, and then use a skimmer or spoon to skim off any scum that floats to the surface.
Once there’s no more foam rising, you can turn down the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and then blend in the miso. I recommend adding a bit of miso at a time and tasting it as different misos have differing amounts of salt. You also want to keep in mind that some of the soup will evaporate, so you want to start it off lightly seasoned, and then you can add more miso at the end to finish it off.
Let this simmer uncovered until the pork and vegetables are tender, which should take about twenty to thirty minutes.
When it’s done, garnish the Tonjiru with green onions and some shichimi togarashi and serve it with a bowl of rice and pickles.
Other Japanese Soup Recipes
Tonjiru literally means “pork soup” in Japanese, and it’s a popular wintertime meal made with thin slices of pork simmered with vegetables. The seasoning varies by household, but it’s most commonly seasoned with either miso or soy sauce.
They’re one and the same. The difference is in how the characters 豚汁 are read. 豚 means pig, and can be read “ton” or “buta.” 汁 means soup and is read as “jiru” in this context. So some people call this Tonjiru while others call it Butajiru.
ton like tone said quickly
ji like jeep
ru like ruse
bu like boom
ji like jeep
ru like ruse
The “ton” in tonjiru literally means “pork,” so if you leave out the pork, it’s technically not tonjiru. That being said, I have a recipe for a plant-based soup called Kenchin-jiru that has a similar medley of veggies and no meat or seafood.
Although it wouldn’t be tonjiru if it’s not made with pork, you can make this soup with other meat or seafood, such as chicken, fish, or clams. If you make it with chicken, use thigh meat as breast meat will end up dry and mealy due to the long cooking time. If you make it with seafood, I recommend cooking the vegetables first and then adding the seafood towards the end, so it doesn’t get overcooked.
- 90 grams burdock
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 260 grams pork jowl (or other marbled cut, thinly sliced)
- 150 grams daikon (peeled, quartered and sliced)
- 100 grams taro (peeled halved and sliced)
- 90 grams carrot (peeled halved and sliced)
- 90 grams shiitake (cleaned and sliced)
- 2 large scallions (stems and leaves chopped separately
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 200 grams shirataki noodles (roughly chopped)
- 5 cups
- 1/3 cup yellow miso
- Shichimi togarashi (optional)
- Prepare the burdock according to the directions above.
- Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat until hot. Add the oil and then spread it out into an even layer. Let this brown undisturbed for a minute or two. Stir the pork to redistribute and brown the other side.
- Add the daikon, taro, carrot, shiitake and scallion stems and stir-fry until fragrant. Deglaze the pot with the mirin.
- Use a skimmer or spoon to skim off any foam that floats to the surface and repeat until there is no more foam coming up.
- Turn down the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and then dissolve the miso into the soup. Simmer the pork soup uncovered until the vegetables and pork are tender (about 20-30 minutes).
- Serve the Tonjiru garnished with scallion greens and shichimi togarashi.