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Japanese Hamburg Steak: A Steak’s Journey

By James Lau
March 19, 2022

The Japanese Hamburg Steak – a favorite among children and a classic taste-trip for adults. More similar to a Salisbury steak than a typical American hamburger, there’s an interesting story of how the hamburger steak cemented itself into Japan’s rich food culture.

What is Japanese Hamburg Steak?

Also known as Hamburger steak (hambagu), this dish is a popular menu item in Japanese family restaurants across the country. This dish uses meat patties made from a mix of ground beef and pork, sautéed onions for sweetness and texture, garlic for flavor, eggs to bind the ingredients together, panko bread crumbs, and milk to keep the steak juicy and tender. 

It’s usually seasoned with salt, pepper, and soy sauce. A blend of Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, and Japanese sake may also be used to make a sauce to season it even more.

A Japanese Hamburg steak with a cheese filling sits in a skillet with corn, carrots, broccoli and roasted potatoes in the same skillet.
Some tasty, modern versions include a cheesy filling for an even more lavish experience. Image via Shutterstock

It is then cooked in a piping hot pan until browned to perfection before being put onto a regular plate or a cast iron plate to help retain the heat.

Hamburg steak is served with your choice of sauce and comes with a side dish, like potatoes or Japanese rice. It can also have a variety of toppings with a fried egg being very common.

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Hamburg, Not Hamburger!

The origin of the Japanese Hamburg steak comes, not from the American hamburger patty between the buns, but actually from steak tartare. It is said that the horse-riding Tatars of Central Asia also used the horse that they took on their expeditions as food. Since the horse meat was tough and hard to eat, the meat was minced into smaller pieces. 

When the Tatars invaded Europe in the 13th century, steak tartare was brought to many countries like France, Belgium, and most notably, Germany.

By the 18th century, the citizens of Hamburg, Germany had begun to cook minced meat with breadcrumbs, forming them into the patty shape that we know today. This was called “frikadelle” or “frikadellen” in German. The dish grew in popularity among the workers and soon became a typical German home-cooked dish. 

A Japanese Hamburg steak sits on a white plate with a topping of sauce and a fried egg with potatoes, carrots, and broccoli in the background.
No one is quite sure when, where, or why the egg topping came about. But we love the pairing either way! Image via Shutterstock

Soon, the dish spread across the continent and became an international hit when German immigrants brought the dish to the United States. However, one of the main problems of the dish at the time was the quality of the meat. 

Hamburg was close to Holstein, Germany, known for the world-famous cow breed, Holstein, and produced high-quality beef from their prized cattle. On the other hand, American cows were not of the same quality, so the quality of the meat was low. 

However, the Hamburg steak remained popular among Americans until someone came up with the idea to sandwich the patty in between two slices of bread, creating the hamburger. As a result, the original Hamburg steak would dwindle in popularity. However, Salisbury steak became popular as a cheaper alternative due to the addition of pork with beef.

Arrival in Japan

A Japanese Hamburg Steak made with beef sits on a plate with a topping of shiso leaf, grated white radish and soy sauce, alongside corn, carrots, and brocolli.
This kind of Hamburg steak is particularly Japanese, featuring a white radish and soy sauce topping that is popular for some Japanese dishes. Image via Shutterstock

While Japan followed a strict Buddhist diet that didn’t really allow eating meat for many years, the Meiji period brought a wave of change that affected the country’s diet as well. Yoshoku (Western-style Japanese dishes) slowly became more common in the country, including the first iteration of Hamburg-style steak. This first version consisted of ground beef sprinkled with flour, baked in fat and oil, and served in tomato sauce. 

Like most yoshoku cuisine, Hamburg steak was eventually adapted to Japanese tastes near the end of the Meiji period and became similar to modern Hamburg steaks in terms of preparation and ingredients.

After the Second World War, meat became more widely available, and Hamburg steaks gained a reputation among housewives for being a great, money-saving way to use cheaper ground meats like pork and chicken to supplement the more expensive ground beef. The dish spread across the country, becoming a household favorite. In fact, it’s often a part of any Japanese person’s top 5 yoshoku dishes.

Hamburg Today (not the city)

A Japanese Hamburg Steak with a lighter complexion, made from chicken and tofu and topped with grated radish, soy sauce and green onions, sits on a white plate with a salad.
The Japan factor is upped with this Hamburg Steak, which is made with chicken and tofu! Image via Shutterstock

Today, Hamburg steak is enjoyed in a variety of places like family restaurants, school cafeterias, dedicated Hamburg steak restaurants, and yoshoku restaurants. Over time, Japanese Hamburg steak has taken on new forms and even incorporated Japanese tastes into its dish.

Hamburg steaks also play with what it means to be a steak. In 1962, the Marushin Hamburg Steak made of whale meat and tuna was released to the public, while the Ishii Chicken Hamburg Steak was released in 1970. 

Hamburg steaks adapted even more to the Japanese taste, managing to use soy sauce to create Wafuu (Japanese-style) Hamburg steaks. It also uses teriyaki sauce or grated daikon (white radish) and ponzu sauce (a citrus-based sauce) to dress the meat. 

Rare Hamburg steaks have also started to make an appearance, just like how someone would order a regular steak to their desired doneness. Simmered Hamburg steaks are also part of the new trend of Hamburg steaks, being stewed in a rich sauce. 

There is also a cooking technique where mushrooms and vegetables are wrapped around the steak with aluminum foil to cook the Hamburg steak.

Did you enjoy learning about the history of Japanese Hamburg steak? What is your favorite way to eat this dish? Tell us in the comments below!

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