Steak Fit for a Maestro
In 1927, the second year of Emperor Showa’s Reign (1926-1989), Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin, the renowned Russian operatic basso, visited Tokyo. He was a true VIP, often earning as much as ¥30,000 for one performance, at a time when you could build a house for ¥1,000. In Tokyo, he stayed at the Imperial Hotel, near the Imperial Palace.
The chefs at the Imperial Hotel were very nervous about Chaliapin’s visit, since he was known to have very pronounced culinary tastes. The only fish he ate were salmon and herring, and when it came to meat he would touch only beef and chicken. He had a particular love of beef and ate it almost every day.
A uniquely Japanese steak dish
One day during his visit, Chaliapin developed tooth trouble and had to visit a local dentist. He came back to the hotel minus a number of teeth – but still hungry. Chef Fukuo Tsutsui of the hotel’s Grill Room wracked his brains to figure out a steak dish that Chaliapin could eat and enjoy. A secretive character, he waited until all the other chefs were on their lunch break and then sneaked into the kitchen, where he pounded a steak to tenderize it, soaked it in onion juice for thirty minutes, sautéed it, and topped it with cooked onions. Chaliapin was in heaven! The president of the hotel, Mr. Inumaru, promptly dubbed it, with Chaliapin’s blessing, Chaliapin Steak – still served today at the Imperial Hotel.
We might never have found out the secret of Chaliapin Steak if it hadn’t been for the disruptions of World War II. In those days, it was common to give some sort of farewell present to a soldier setting off to battle. Chef Tsutsui gave as his farewell present to a departing junior chef, Nobuo Murakami, the secret of tenderizing steak with onion juice. His parting words to Murakami were: “You will die, so I will tell you.” Happily for us – you’ll never taste a more tenderer and delicious steak for so little effort – Thankfully, Nobuo Murakami came home safely, was known for his innovative culinary contributions to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and later became chief chef of the Imperial Hotel in 1969.
Get FREE Japanese Recipes by Email! Sign Up Now!
Chaliapin Steak Recipe
- 4 good-quality boneless steaks, about 5-6 oz. each (Used NY strip steak, trimmed of excess fat)
- 2 large white onions, peeled and pureed (Used a food processor)
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- salt and pepper to taste
- 4 tbsp unsalted butter (Keep back 1 tbsp cold cubed butter to finish sauce)
- 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
- 2 tbsp finely chopped garlic
- 2 tbsp Cognac
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Choose one: 4 sprigs of watercress, minced parsley or minced chives
- Place the steaks in a non-aluminum container and top with pureed onion. Let stand for 15 minutes, then remove the onion, turn the steaks over, cover with onion again and let stand a further 15 minutes. Scrape off the onion and discard it. Pat the steaks gently on both sides with a paper towel to dry. Salt and pepper the steaks to taste.
- Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in a pan and sauté the steaks to desired doneness. Remove from pan and keep warm.
- To make the sauce, melt 3 tablespoons butter in the same pan and sauté the onions and garlic until translucent and softened. Carefully add the cognac and cook for a minute or two. Add the red wine carefully and cook over high heat until the sauce starts to thicken. Season to taste. Just before serving, add the remaining tablespoon of cold cubed butter and stir to combine to finish the sauce. Pour over steaks and serve immediately. Garnish with watercress, parsley or chives if you like.