Nikujaga is a stew that’s typically made with thin cuts of beef simmered together with onions, potatoes, and carrots in a savory-sweet dashi broth. In this version, we’re making “niku”jaga, replacing the meat for a delicious duo of mushrooms that add a meaty taste and texture to this Japanese classic.
Like it’s sibling Japanese Curry Rice, Nikujaga was created to feed a large number of hungry troops. It’s precisely the kind of dish you’d imagine getting if you asked a Navy cook to make a Japanese version of Western beef stew, and that’s supposedly how it was created. The troops brought a taste for the dish home with them, and Nikujaga has since become one of the most popular home-cooked meals in Japan.
Niku (肉) means “meat” and Jaga (じゃが) is an abbreviation for Jagaimo (じゃが芋)or “potato,” so Nikujaga (肉じゃが) literally means “meat & potatoes.” Since this Vegan Nikujaga is made with mushrooms, it’s technically Kinokojaga (茸じゃが), but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Two main substitutions need to happen to make Nikujaga vegan. The most obvious one is the meat. If you break down the role of the meat in this dish, it does three things. 1) It adds umami and flavor to the broth and other ingredients 2) It contributes a meaty texture and protein to the dish 3) It adds fat to the dish, which is what lends richness and body to the stew. Nailing all three of these with one plant-based ingredient would be pretty tough, but by using a combination of two mushrooms along with a little extra oil, I was able to get close.
Maitake mushrooms, which are sometimes called “Hen of the Woods,” is a feathery mushroom with a bold meaty flavor that adds boatloads of umami to any dish it’s added to. It’s also one of the best plant-based sources of Vitamin D.
Eryngi mushrooms, which are also known as “King Trumpet,” although they don’t have much going on in the flavor department, they have a thick fibrous stem that allows them to mimic all sorts of meat and seafood depending on how they’re sliced. For Nikujaga, I like to cut them into very thin slices lengthwise, which gives them a substantial meaty texture.
Finally, I’ve doubled the amount of oil I’d typically use to make this dish. This may sound like an unhealthy change, but there are a few reasons for this. The first is that it gets the taste of the dish closer to the original by adding a little richness to the broth. Unlike Western stews, which are often made with a roux, Nikujaga is made with clear dashi stock, so without some fat, it can seem thin and watery. The mushrooms also tend to absorb oil like a sponge at first, so without enough oil in the pan, they won’t brown evenly. If that’s not enough to convince you, consider this: Vitamin D is fat-soluble, so to get the best absorption of this essential vitamin, it’s important to pair it with some fat.
The only thing lacking here is a significant source of protein (both mushrooms and potatoes contain some protein), so if you want more protein, you can add tofu to this dish as well.
There’s one other change we need to make to make this dish plant-based, which is the dashi. Dashi stock is typically made with konbu (kelp) along with dried, smoked, and fermented skipjack tuna. While it doesn’t have quite as much flavor, it’s perfectly okay to make dashi with just konbu, which is known as konbu dashi. Kelp is loaded with naturally occurring glutamic acids, which are amino acids that trigger the umami taste receptors on your tongue.
Konbu is produced all over Japan, but there’s a region in northeastern Hokkaido called Rausu that produces a very meaty tasty konbu that’s excellent for making plant-based dashi.
The rest of the traditional ingredients for Nikujaga are onions, potatoes, and carrots. I usually like to add some shirataki noodles to the mix, which adds some bulk to the stew without adding any calories. They’re also very good at soaking up the wonderful flavors of the broth while adding a fun texture to the dish. To finish it off, I usually add something green, such as snow peas, snap peas, edamame, or green beans.
Like any stew, there’s a lot of room for improvisation in this dish, and I sometimes like to add things like tomatoes, kabocha, sweet potatoes, burdock, or parsnips.
I’m glad you asked because Nikujaga is best made ahead of time! If you’re planning on eating it that day, I recommend making it a few hours in advance and then letting it cool to room temperature once. The changes in temperature and time soaking in the broth helps all the ingredients release and reabsorb flavors from the other ingredients in the stew. The only thing you’ll want to do is hold off on adding anything green until you reheat your Nikujaga; otherwise, it will get overcooked and lose its color.
- 7 grams konbu
- 1 cup water
- ½ cup sake
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons evaporated cane sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 400 grams potatoes (6 small potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks)
- 200 grams carrots (1 large peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 220 grams onion (1 small onion, peeled and sliced)
- 100 grams Maitake mushrooms (hand-shredded)
- 200 grams Eryngi mushrooms (large mushrooms thinly sliced)
- 226 grams shirataki noodles (drained and roughly chopped)
- 80 grams snap peas (trimmed)
- To make the dashi stock, add the konbu, water, sake, soy sauce, sugar, and salt to a bowl and let the konbu rehydrate while you prepare the other ingredients.
- Put the potatoes and carrots in a microwave-safe bowl along with a tablespoon of water. Cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap and then microwave at 800 watts for 4 minutes.
- Heat a pot over high heat until hot and then add the vegetable oil, onions, maitake mushrooms, and Eryngi mushrooms and stir-fry until the mushrooms just start to brown.
- Add the dashi stock, along with the konbu and then add the microwaved potatoes and carrots, as well as the shirataki noodles and give the mixture a stir to combine.
- Cover with a drop lid and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Turn down the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the potatoes and carrots are tender (about 10 minutes). Gently stir the mixture together about halfway through cooking to ensure they’re getting some time in the dashi.
- Ideally, you want to cover the pot with a lid and let the nikujaga cool to room temperature once, which encourages the dashi stock to permeate every ingredient. If you don’t have time, proceed to the next step.
- Reheat the nikujaga before serving and steam the snap peas on top of the other ingredients for about 1 minute covered with a lid.