gyūdon

- 1 small filet of beef
- green baby asparagus
- pepper
- cooking oil
- pickled ginger
- teriyaki sauce (bought)
- 1 portion of rice

Have you ever ordered your dinner at a machine? Did you pay for it before you even set foot into the restaurant? Or took place in a diner while your dinner was already waiting hot and steamy on your table? No? Welcome to the world of Japanese fast food No. 1: Gyūdon.

Beside the enlightening set menus with all their artificially prepared dishes, gyūdon is the dark side of Japanese dining.

Literally, gyūdon is a bowl of rice (donburi) covered with stripes of beef (gyū) and some kind of sauce and spices. But actually gyūdon is much more. Gyūdon feeds hundred thousands of hungry Japanese workes, businessmen (well, mainly men at least) or students every day. For some it is kind of a philosophy to buy a cheap microwave warmed up gyūdon at a 24 hour convenient store after enjoying a fabulous restaurant dinner; a midnight snack before the long train ride home.

Imagine the shock for all the gyūdon fans, when US-beef was under import ban between February 2004 and September 2006 due to mad cow disease. Food chains specialised on gyūdon had to change their programme to butadon - a pork meat version.

A colleague of mine introduced me to an especially shocking place in Akihabara, Tokyos most bizarre district. Formally only known as the largest market for electronics, it is now also the most famous place for the otaku (manga nerds).

We choose our dinner outside on the street at an automat not much different from a stamp-machine. Photos of the available dishes were printed on the buttons. After pressing one, an automatic voice repeated our choice, and an old blinking display presented the price. After putting enough money in the vendor, we got a ticket, which not only mentioned our orders but also the places we were supposed to take seat on.

Eventually, we went one level higher into the diner, and really: the gyūdon did find its way to our places as fast as we. The table was more like a counter with the kitchen and cooks directly behind, taking there commands from a computer linked to the ordering machine downstairs. The employees produced gyūdon non stop with cheap meat and too much oil and spices but little culinary refines and served it in the same uninspired way: in white sterile plastic bowls.

This is the sad story of gyūdon.

But if done right, this dish can taste quite good. Therefore, I try to give it a more adequate reputation. The not so enigmatic secret behind this effort is, of course, best beef and little oil. Fry or grill a filet of beef so it is still a little rosé inside and crush some black pepper on top. Add green baby asparagus and fry them for about two minutes.

Cut the beef in small slices and place them on a bowl of rice. To make the rice a little more interesting I mixed it with cut in half ginko seeds (you can buy these nut-like fruit boiled, peeled and ready to eat in Japanese supermarkets). Now you only need to add the fried asparagus, pickled ginger and some teriyaki sauce for your first class gyūdon - some would call it sutekidon (steak donburi).

Itadakimasu!