The Participant Observer Recipe of the Month is for Japanese Gyudon (牛丼 - literally "beef bowl") with Onsen Tamago. A beef version of "donburi", it is easy to make and checks all the boxes for a quick comfort food!


Buddhism was introduced into Japan in the 6th century. One of the early precepts of Japanese Buddhism was the prohibition of eating meet. Prior to that time, people in Japan ate wild boar, deer or domesticated pigs. In 675CE the Emperor Tenmu banned eating meat altogether. A full one thousand years later during the Edo Period (1603-1868), meat eating re-entered Japanese culture in the form of cures for various ailments. In 1852-3, just prior to the end of the Edo Period, American Commodore Matthew Perry visited Japan during a time when the country was extremely isolationist. He was ordered to force open trade with the Japanese, but the Japanese rebuffed him, biding him to return a year later to learn the Japanese official response to Perry's proposal to establish trade relations. He returned in only 6 months with 10 warships and 1600 men to force the issue under the theory of "manifest destiny". A series of missteps ensued, but on March 31, 1954, the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed, establishing trade relations. Subsequently, there was a move to re-instate the emperor to power, resulting in the Meji Restoration. Japanese warily embraced aspects of Western culture, and in 1872, it was announced that the Emperor himself had eaten beef, and there was an official campaign to promote meat eating to increase the health and physical stature of Japanese citizens (particular soldiers). It was thought this could be achieved through daily consumption of meat as was the custom in the West. Eventually a form of beef hotpot, Gyū-nabe, became quite popular in Japanese restaurants of the time. By 1877 there were nearly 600 restaurants in Toyko alone that specialized in beef dishes. Gyudon is the precursor to the more elaborate Sukiyaki, both employing a sauce made from soy sauce (shoyu), fermented rice wine (mirin), higher alcohol rice wine(sake), sugar and bonito stock (dashi). One website has dubbed the gyudon as "Japans most fool-proof dish." The dish typically employs relatively inexpensive cuts of beef (ribeye or chuck) making it a cheap meal (under $5), however, the Origami restaurant in Tokyo sells Waygu beef version using Waygu beef that costs $50 a bowl.

The first restaurant in Japan to specialize exclusively in gyudon was Yoshinyo at the Tokyo Nihonbashi fish market which began serving in 1899. It may have been the first instance of Japanese fast-food and was then called Gyumeshi (beef rice). Today, Yoshinoya operates a large chain of gyudon restaurants in Asia and the United States including several in the San Diego area. But the largest chain—over 2,000 outlets—specializing in gyudon is Sukiya, with restaurants throughout Asia, and in Brazil and Mexico.

Gyudon requires thinly sliced beef (round, ribeye or chuck). You can buy pre-cut beef for it at Asian markets, use beef sliced for Philly Cheesesteaks or slice the beef yourself. If you decide to do your own slicing, it is highly advantageous to slice partially frozen beef which will allow you to make the thinnest slices.

Onsen Tamago is a Japanese-style poached egg. "Osen" is a Japananes hot spring, but the word also refers to country hot spring spas. Traditionally "osen eggs" were cooked in the hot water from a hot spring. However, you can easily approximate them at home. Put 2 to 3 (depending on how many servings you desire) in a pot. Fill the pot with boiling water and cover for 20 minutes. If not using the eggs immediately, drop them in a bath of ice water. Some people forego poaching the egg, preferring it raw, and others like them sunny-side up. But in all cases, a runny yolk is desirable.

This recipe calls for the common Japanese fish broth known as dashi which is used in a number of different dishes including miso shiro soup. It can be made a variety of way, 1. By briefly simmering katsuobushi fish flakes and a piece of Konbu seaweed, (see the link for miso shiro below). 2. Use dashi "tea bags" (very convenient) or 3. most commonly from a packet of powered hondashi soup stock.

If you use sweet sake you might try reducing the sugar in the recipe to a teaspoon.

Beni-shoga (red pickled ginger) and Shichimi Togarahi powder can be bought in an Asian or Japanese market, although some non-specialty supermarkets have one or both. Shichi is "seven" in Japanese and Shichi-mi Togarahi is a 7-flavor blend of powdered chili, roasted and powdered orange rind, ground sansho (Japanese "pepper"), black and white sesame seeds, hemp seed, ground dry ginger, powdered nori (seaweed) and poppy seed.

Lastly, in Japan gyudon is almost always served with a bowl of Miso Shiru soup, a recipe for which can be found here.


  • 1/2 pound (225g) thinly shaved beef ribeye or chuck steak (see note)
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1/2 cup homemade dashi, or the equivalent in Hondashi (see note)
  • 1/4 cup dry sake
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, plus more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced daikon (Japanese radish) - optional
  • 2 - 3 raw eggs (don't break)
  • 2 cups Japanese short grain rice
  • Beni-shoga (red pickled ginger)
  • Shichimi Togarashi mixed chili pepper powder


  1. Bring a pot of water to a boil to prepare the eggs.
  2. Place eggs (not shelled yet!) in a medium pot, fill will boiling water and cover. Set timer for 20 minutes and read note above.
  3. Prepare the rice according to package directions.
  4. Slice the onion into thin crescents.
  5. Slice the daikon into thin slices. (optional)
  6. In a medium-size pan, combine the onion, daikon, sake, soy sauce, sugar and dashi and bring to a simmer.
  7. Simmer ingredients for 5 minutes stirring frequently.
  8. Mix in the sliced beef and simmer for an additional 5 minutes, again stiff frequently.
  9. If the mixture starts to get dry, add some water or bonito stock to the pot.
  10. Add sliced ginger and cook for an additional minute. (note, adding the ginger at the end will retain its "kick".)
  11. Serve over cooked Japanese short grain rice. (makes 2 - 3 bowls)
  12. Break an onsen egg over each bowl.
  13. Garnish with Beni-shoga and a light dusting of Shichimi Togarashi powder.*


Recipe by T. Johnston-O'Neill
Photos by Shari K. Johnston-O'Neill
Some historical information summarized from Yoshoko Roots Story (Plenus "kome" Academy).
* Note: We forgot to sprinkle the Shichimi Togarshi on before we took the photos!
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