This recipe for Japanese hamburger steak was inspired by the ferris wheel in downtown Sapporo. Moments later, I noticed a hair piece a woman standing in front of me on the bus was wearing. The design was two adjoining circles with two different patterns made of brightly colored rings. Just before the bus stop where I got off, I decided to give what’s called ‘hambagu’ in Japanese, a new spin. It’s colorful, healthy, and fun.  

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Japanese hamburger steak

Hambaga vs. Hambagu 

Even after years of living in Japan, I would get the words ‘hambaga‘ and ‘hambagu‘ mixed up. One has a bun and the other is just the meat patty, like a personal-sized meatloaf. 

If you want a hambaga, with a ga, you can go to McDonald’s (pronounced ma-ku-do-na-ru-do).

If you want a beefy hamba-gu, smoothered in a gooey brown sauce,  you won’t be able to pick it up to eat with your hands. 

And if you don’t especially care for either one of those choices, then this recipe might be for you.

My new recipe is for healthy hambagu. There’s no bun, no ketchup, no mustard, no pickle… and no beef.  

Japanese hamburger steak recipe

What is Japanese Hamburger Steak (Hambagu)? 

Many describe hambagu as the Japanese version of Salisbury steak. 

The memories I have of Salisbury steak are from school lunch and microwaveable TV dinners. “Mystery meat” served on a tray with gravy, instant mashed potatoes, and frozen green peas… If you grew in the US in the 1980s, you know what I’m talking about. 

On the other hand, if you grew up in Japan, hambagu likely brings back fond memories from your childhood. Even imagining the smell that wafted from your mother’s or grandma’s kitchen makes me salivate.

Homemade hambagu meat patties are made from a mix of ground beef, ground pork, finely chopped onions, panko bread crumbs, egg, and seasoned with spices like nutmeg. The thick, circular patties are grilled on a skillet. The juicy meat is usually glazed with gravy,  demi-glacé, or a tomato-based sauce. At restaurants, hambagu is often served on a hot plate with a side of warm, white rice, and cooked vegetables. 

In Japan, hambagu is an economical way to enjoy a fancy “steak meal”. It’s easy to make at home on a weeknight after a busy day at the office. You can even buy mixed ground beef and pork for making hambagu at any supermarket in Japan. 

how to make Japanese hamburger steak, hambagu

Hambagu- A New, Healthy Version for a Japanese classic 

My new version of hambagu is still affordable and easy to make. To make it light and healthy, my recipe calls for ground chicken and there’s no gravy.

I added finely chopped vegetables to the minced, free-range chicken.  I’m not a vegetarian, but I’m trying to reduce the amount of meat I eat at any one meal (no more than 100 – 120 grams).

Instead of making one thick patty, I split the amount of meat in half to make two thinner patties that I could stack. 

This is no double-decker like what you’d get at Burger King or McDonalds. I added finely chopped yellow zucchini, red pepper, and turmeric to the burger that goes on the bottom. The burger on top has green zucchini, apple, carrot, and cinnamon.    

Instead of gravy, I sautéed some chopped sweet onions, shiitake mushroom, persimmon, and walnuts. After my two burger patties got a head start on cooking, I filled in the rest of the pan with the makings for the topping.

Japanese hamburger steak ingredients

A variety of chopped vegetables– “eat the rainbow” 

Last week, I sent my girlfriend a picture of this new burger creation. Her response was “Oishisou! (It looks good!) I want to try your rainbow hambagu.”

I promised her that I’d make it for her without the avocado. She can’t eat avocado.🌈🦄 

You may have noticed that Japanese cuisine tends to be very colorful. If you look at bento meals, you’ll see all the colors of the rainbow. At one of my very first Japanese cooking classes in Tokyo, I learned that this was intentional. 

The different colors in fruits and vegetables indicate to us that they contain a variety of nutrients, especially phytochemicals like beta carotene in carrots, the catechins in green tea, and the polyphenols in berries or red wine.

Healthy cooks in Japan know that eating a broad spectrum of colors is a good guarantee that your body is getting all the nutrition it needs.

how to make Japanese hamburger steak

Important Tips for Making Japanese Hamburger Steak (Hambagu) 

1. If your veggies are all chopped ahead of time, this recipe is a breeze to cook. If you can, I recommend doing the prep on a Sunday as a big batch and keep everything in the fridge. I use the leftover chopped vegetables to make omelettes for breakfast. The one exception is apple, which will turn brown after it’s chopped.

2. If you don’t have a lot of time for prep, you can always simplify the recipe by making one burger patty rather than two. Instead of adding a rainbow of different vegetables to the minced chicken, you can just pick one or two.

3. The secret to this hambagu turning out delicious is almost all in the quality of the ingredients. For the most part, I used all locally grown Hokkaido vegetables. Quality vegetables and chicken will make all the difference! 

4. “If it looks good, it will taste good.” That’s a big part of how I decide which ingredients to use. When shopping for ingredients to make this recipe, I followed my gut (and my stomach!). If I could make this dish look good, somehow it ends up tasting how it looks: yummy in my tummy.

5. If you really want to have fries with your burger, I’m sure some roasted sweet potato fries would go really well with these autumn flavors.