Buta no kakuni, Japanese braised pork belly, is one of those dishes that makes my mouth water just thinking about it. Tender, juicy chunks of pork belly that have been braised until tender and glazed in a braising liquid made from dashi (Japanese sea stock), mirin, sugar, and soy sauce. It’s the perfect dish to be next in my Japanese Kitchen Basics series, because I can share a bit about braising and simmering, drop lids, and soy sauce in Japanese cooking.
Braised and simmered dishes, known as nimono, are the backbone of Japanese cooking. Braising and simmering creates dishes that are moist, tender, and packed with flavor. Sometimes ingredients are lightly sauteed first, while others are simmered from the beginning in liquid. Usually the cooking liquid is allowed to reduce completely and a final few moments of high heat semi-glazes the food.
Otoshibuta (Drop Lids)
When braising, the Japanese use an otoshibuta, a special lid that is usually about 1 inch smaller than the diameter of the pot and sits directly on the food. Elizabeth Andoh, in her book Washoku, explains how it works, a drop lid “keeps the food moist, while allowing the liquid to reduce and intensify slowly. The bubbling liquid hits against the underside of the lid during cooking, flavoring and coloring the top surface of the food as well as the bottom, thereby eliminating the need to flip the food.” Drop lids are traditionally made from wood, the best being made from hinoki, a cedar-like wood. Drop lids are made of other materials, like silicone and aluminum, but you can improvise by shaping a sheet of aluminum foil or parchment paper into a circle.
Soy Sauce in Japanese Cooking
One of the classic ingredients used in Japanese braised and simmered dishes is soy sauce. Soy sauce is made from dried soy beans, wheat, water, and salt. Because of the limited number of ingredients used to make it, the flavor of the soy sauce is greatly effected by the quality of the ingredients used. Soy sauce is added later in cooking to add flavor and color. If soy sauce is added too early, the dish can become too salty and dark, and the flavor of the soy sauce will disappear if it is overheated. Braising is a great way to use a special artisan soy sauce, as the items being braised are accentuated by the rich flavors of the soy sauce. The Ingredient Finder sells one of my favorite artisan soy sauces, Kishibori Shoyu, which is produced on Shodoshima, a small island in the Seta Inland Sea in Japan. Steamed soybeans, toasted wheat, salt and mineral water are fermented for one year in seasoned 100-year-old cider barrels. The ideal climate conditions of the area lend to a slow, yet constant fermentation that produce a large number of complex organic acids, giving the soy sauce a unique bull-bodied aroma. Unlike mass-produced soy sauces, this soy sauce isn’t treated with additional alcohol or preservatives, and is not adulterated by any additives. It’s just pasteurized and then bottled.
Now let’s talk pork belly. In How to Roast a Pig, by Tom Rea, a fantastic book you’ll be hearing more about in the future, the author writes that “[p]ork belly is the most amazing piece of meat in a pig because it’s comprised of nonworking muscle (very tender meat) with plenty of well-distributed fat (loads of flavor and moisture).” The secret to pork belly is to cook it slowly, so that the excess fat is rendered from the flesh, leaving you with the succulent, juicy meat.
Braising pork belly achieves this beautifully, and using Kishibori shoyu gives the pork a wonderful rich flavor. The tender cubes of braised pork are delicious served with rice and sauteed greens, or whatever happens to sound good to you at the moment!
Japanese Braised Pork Belly (Buta no Kakuni)
Makes 3 servings
Recipes Notes: The meat is first simmered in a whole piece, and then cut into chunks before simmering for a second time. The meat will shrink down if cut prior to the first round of simmering.
1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/4 pounds pork belly
1 1/2-inch knob fresh ginger
3 cups dashi (sea stock)
1/4 cup mirin
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/4 cup soy sauce
1. Heat the canola oil in a fry pan over high heat. Put the pork belly in the fry pan, fat side down, and sear until brown. Once browned, turn the pork belly over and quickly cook all six surfaces until browned.
2. Once all of the surfaces have been browned, put the pork belly in a stock pot and cover with warm water. Cut the green part of the leeks into two pieces, and then cut each piece in half. Reserve the white portions of the leeks to use for garnish. Peel the ginger and then cut the ginger into thick slices. Add the leeks and ginger to the stock pot with the pork belly and place the pot over high heat.
3. Once the water has come to a boil, reduce the heat to low and cover the meat with a drop-lid (otoshibuta). Simmer the pork belly for 2 hours. Skim off any fat that floats to the surface of the water during cooking.
4. After simmering, move the pot to the sink and run cool water over the pot (keeping the drop-lid on), to cool the meat.
5. Cut the cooled pork belly into 2-inch chunks. Lightly wipe any liquid off of the meat with a cloth. Discard the leeks and ginger.
6. Clean the stock pot, then put the dashi, mirin, and sugar in the cleaned pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the cubed pork belly and reduce the heat to medium. Simmer the pork until it is soft enough for a bamboo skewer to pierce the meat smoothly, and then the meat drops from the skewer when lifted, approximately 20 minutes. Remove any fat that rises to the surface while cooking.
7. Add 3 tablespoons of the soy sauce. (Do not add the soy sauce any earlier. If it is added before the pork has had a chance to tenderize, the soy sauce will cause the meat to become tough.) Cover the pork again with the drop-lid and simmer until the pork is tender and the sauce has reduced (approximately 30 minutes), then remove the drop-lid and continue simmering until the sauce thickens (approximately 25 minutes).
8. Add more of the remaining soy sauce as needed. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Place the meat, along with the sauce, in an airtight container and place in the refrigerator overnight. The meat can be eaten right away, but is even better when you let the flavors develop overnight. To serve, gently warm the meat and sauce and serve with the reserved whites of the leeks, cut into thin matchsticks.
*Disclosure: I was not compensated for this post. The Ingredient Finder sent me a sample of Kishibori Shoyu to experiment with. All opinions and experiences are my own.