Cooking, in particular with one’s children, can also be an excellent occasion (or perhaps we should say excuse) to learn some military history. A good example of a suitable dish is Nikujaga (肉じゃが), an Anglo-Japanese dish “invented” (or adapted) by Admiral Togo, who defeated Russia’s Baltic Fleet at the battle of Tsushima. This paved the way for Tokyo’s victory in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War – a conflict which rocked the foundations of the world-wide Imperial order and was widely seen as a challenge to hitherto accepted racial hierarchies.
When Japan chose to modernise, as the only viable alternative to being colonised, she took as role models a wide range of countries in a bid not only to learn from the best in each field but to avoid excessive reliance on any single nation. In the naval arena, the British Empire and her Royal Navy reigned supreme, and were chosen as the destination where the country’s future officers would be educated. This led to the adoption of myriad customs with, for example, bridge orders being given in English.
In his book La Cuina Japonesa (Japanese Cuisine), Professor Ko Tazawa explains that Admiral Togo was worried about “the lack of calories and proteins in Japanese sailors’ food”, and thus “copied the receipt of the meat and potatoes stew that British sailors usually ate”. However, when he showed the receipt to cooks in the Japanese Imperial Fleet, “it was a dish so different to normal food in Japan at that time that cooks were forced to adapt it, substantially modifying its taste. Otherwise, no Japanese would have eaten it”. The result was a hybrid of English origin but with a parentage not always clear at first sight…
Nikujaga thus takes us back to the old days of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s (IJN) extensive partnership with the Royal Navy, and Japan’s label as the ‘Britain of the East’. The centenary of the Great War serves as a reminder of some of the most important aspects of cooperation in the period, from the joint campaign against German Tsingtao in North-East China to IJN patrols in the Mediterranean (attested by the graves in Malta‘s Kalkara (Capuccini) Naval Cemetery) and the work of Japanese nurses in British soil.
The Anglo-Japanese Alliance, however, was among the many victims of the Great War. Mutual trust and shared values and interests quickly gave way to mistrust and confrontation, as clear from the decision to build a major naval and air base at Singapore. One generation later, the brothers in arms who had fought shoulder to shoulder had become bitter foes, with the abuse suffered by British, Commonwealth and other Allied prisoners of war leaving an indelible mark.
Fortunately, a sustained effort at reconciliation was made by both sides involving veterans, governments, civil society and organisations such as the Burma Campaign Society. This allowed friendship to once again flourish – paving the way to the tighter defence cooperation recently confirmed by British Defence Secretary Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP. He announced that joint drills would be taking place this year, having earlier stated in no unclear terms that “provocative behaviour in the South China Sea destabilises the region”, adding that it “increases the risk of miscalculation”. London has a stake in the fate of its waters (vital for Japan), not only as a major seafaring and trading nation committed to the rule of law at sea and freedom of navigation, but because many of the principles at stake, such as the peaceful resolution of disputes – overlapping with those at play in the South Atlantic. The forward defence of the Falklands, where revisionist claims are supported by the same forces seeking to expand in the Indo-Pacific Region, begins in the South China Sea. Operation Corporate provides a moral tale of defiance to Japan with the Islands having become an important element in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s narrative; a quiet warning that aggression will not be condoned.
Here we shall follow Professor Tazawa’s book, where – in addition to providing some historical background to Nikujaga – he explains how to cook the dish. For six people, we need:
* 350 grams of beef, cut in small, fine pieces.
* Six potatoes
* Three onions
* One carrot
* Soy sauce (seven tablespoons)
* Sugar (three tablespoons)
* Sake (three tablespoons)
First of all, peel and cut the potatoes, carrots and onions in the typical manner of any stew. Then, in a deep cooking pot, slightly fry the meat and the onions with a bit of vegetable oil; next adding the potatoes and carrots. Add water until the ingredients are covered. When it starts to boil, remove the fat from the surface. Add the soy sauce, sugar and the sake, and leave it to boil gently until the potatoes and carrots are soft. Professor Tazawa recommends turning out the fire after 15 minutes and bringing it back to boil so that the taste from the meat and the condiments better penetrate the potatoes and the carrots. It can be eaten accompanied with boiled rice.
Quick, easy and full of history: To conclude, Nikujaga can be cooked easily and quickly, not requiring any deep expertise. Replete with history, it provides us with a good opportunity (or perhaps excuse) to look back at the Meiji Restoration, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and the Russo-Japanese War; to celebrate the post-war reconciliation between Great Britain and Japan, and growing defence links between the two Island nations.