Mo’ Belly (Buta No Kakuni)

January 26, 2012

No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.
~Mahatma Gandhi

Buta no kakuni (braised pork belly) is most often associated with the southern Japanese island of Kyūshū, and in particular, the Nagasaki prefecture. The dish was reportedly adapted from a similar Chinese dish, called tonporo in Japan, that was introduced through the port of Nagasaki during isolationist times.

Formerly a secluded fishing village, Nagasaki’s first touch with the West was in the mid 16th century when a Portugese ship landed on nearby Tanegashima island. At the time, Japan was strife-ridden with potent feudal lords vying for supremacy, and the Portuguese possessed that equalizer in their ships’ hulls—firearms. So, Japanese provincial leaders, the daimyo, eagerly began regular trade with the Portuguese and even opened intercourse with mainland China with whom Japan had severed ties earlier.

A half century later, the Dutch expeditionary ship Liefde which was manned by a couple dozen starving sailors, arrived in Kyūshū. The Dutch captain somehow managed to win the confidence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Japanese unifier who had championed cultural seclusion and had just banned Christianity about a decade earlier. The Portuguese soon became unwelcome. Fearing colonization, the Japanese first persecuted, and then completely expelled all Portuguese diplomats, clerics, traders and their families. Enter the Dutch.

After Tokugawa’s death, shogun ordered the construction of the artificial, tiny island of Dejima (“exit island”) in Nagasaki Harbor. This mock isle became Japan’s single port and sole window onto the West yet was designed to keep that nether world at bay. A venue for lively cross-cultural merchant trade, the borders between propriety and pleasure on Dejima became blurred…a bizarre birth of trade relations between Japan and the Dutch East India Company that would endure for centuries.

Chinese ships first entered the port in the late 16th century and soon established trade routes there. Dutch and Chinese traders were the only foreigners permitted to enter Japan for over two hundred years, from 1639 to 1854. But, they were confined to certain ethnic enclaves: the Dutch to Dejima, the Chinese to the Tōjin-yashiki (“Chinese residence”). By the early 1700s, Nagasaki was welcoming hundreds of Chinese ships annually, and a notable portion of the population were from China. The influence of Chinese food culture on Japan, especially via the southern port city of Nagasaki, is palpable. In short, Nagasaki quietly boasts a singular Japanese cuisine that has benefited from Chinese, Dutch, and Portuguese imprints. A paradox in a time of isolation.

Bona fide buta no kakuni? An authentic version? A genuine rendition? Faithful to the original? Perhaps not entirely. But, this is a close adaptation with some poetic license. As has been remarked earlier, fusion cuisine is far from a novel concept.

BRAISED JAPANESE PORK BELLY (BUTA NO KAKUNI)

1/2 T canola oil
2 1/2 lbs, uncured, center cut pork belly (without skin)

4 C water
1/2 C sake
1 T mirin
2″ piece fresh ginger, halved and smashed

3 C cold water
1 1/2 C shoyu
1 C sugar
2 star anise
6 black peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks
2″ piece fresh ginger, halved and smashed

Steamed Chinese Buns (mantou)
Eggs, boiled, peeled and halved
Scallions, cut into 2″ lengths then lengthwise into thin strips
Daikon radish, peeled and thinly sliced
Sriracha
Hoisin

Sear
Heat the canola oil in a large, heavy skillet over high heat until it shimmers and is before smoking. Add the pork belly, fat side down until golden, about 2 minutes. Turn and sear evenly on the other three sides. Do not allow the pan to smoke. Transfer the seared belly to a platter or sided sheet pan.

Braises
In a heavy Dutch oven or pot, combine the pork belly, water, sake, mirin, and ginger. Bring to just a boil over high heat, uncovered, then reduce heat and lower to a simmer, cooking for 1 hour. Transfer to a platter or sided sheet pan, then discard the liquid and clean the pot.

Next, place the water, shoyu, sugar, star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon stick and ginger into the same Dutch oven. Add the pork belly, and again just bring to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer. Cover and cook gently until the pork belly is quite tender and succulent, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Remove the pork belly, transfer to a cutting board and allow to rest. Meanwhile, remove and discard the star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon stick and ginger with a slotted spoon and discard. Reserve the braising liquid.

Press
Transfer braised pork belly to a deep baking dish. Pour enough of the braising liquid into the dish to just cover the belly. Top with a smaller baking dish and weigh down with small dumb bells, cans or bricks. Place in the fridge overnight. Once pressed, remove from dish and skim off and discard any fat that may have gelled on the surface.

Finish
Preheat oven to 400 F. Put the belly, fat side down in an ovenproof saute pan and add enough braising liquid to reach about 1/4″ up the sides. Cook in the oven, basting occasionally, until just heated through, about 15 minutes. Turn the meat over, and roast another 5 minutes, basting more often this time, until the belly is richly browned and glazed. Transfer to a cutting board and allow to rest some, then carve belly into cubes or slices depending on your needs.

Pour any remaining braising liquid into a heavy saucepan, bring to a simmer, and reduce to the consistency of a thinner sauce. (If boiled eggs are visiting your table, ladle some braise over the open halves in a bowl before reducing.)

Serve with whatever whets your appetite: steamed rice, Chinese buns, boiled eggs, scallions, daikon radish, cilantro, chiles, Sriacha, Hoisin Karashi (Japanese mustard), and, of course, the reduced braising sauce.

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