In October 2010, in a small unassuming restaurant in Kyoto, I tasted a dish which has haunted my heart ever since (so much so that we named our blog after it). A small hand formed brown kyo-ware bowl, lined with a single shiso leaf, a spoonful of sweet cooking liquid and three cubes of pork belly, braised for hours until the layers of meat, gelatinous skin and fat had reached a meltingly soft texture unlike anything I’d eaten before or since. After some research, we discovered that this beautifully yielding showcase of pork belly at its best was known as Nagasaki pork, or Buta no Kakuni. Kakuni probably started off as a Chinese dish called Dongpo pork, and in its migration to Japan the flavours evolved to suit the local tastes of Kyushu while keeping the same cooking techniques used for centuries prior.
We’ve spent years trying to match the flavour of the kakuni we first encountered in Kyoto, and have finally got it just right. Although we haven’t been able to find a source of shiso leaves here in the UK, we’ve accompanied our kakuni with some young flowering leeks and a dab of tobanjan to give a spicy, fresh counterpoint to balance out the rich pork.
Buta no Kakuni ingredients.
- 1kg piece of belly pork (you want the thickest piece of pork you can find, with almost equal amounts of fat and meat)
- 120ml soy sauce
- 60ml mirin
- 90ml sake
- 30g fresh root ginger
- 90g sugar
- 4 spring onions
- 1L dashi stock
- small bunch of flowering leeks or chives
- tobanjan, gochujang or sriracha to serve
- Slice your pork belly into 2 1/2″ wide slices along the length of the piece and place a large frying pan on a high heat to warm up. When the pan is hot, place the pieces of belly pork in with their skin side facing down and allow them to sear for a minute or two. Once the skin has browned, turn the pork over and repeat until it is coloured on all sides, then transfer to a saucepan.
- Roughly chop the spring onions and add these to the pan along with enough cold water to cover the pork. Slowly bring the pork to a simmer and allow to cook gently for two hours, topping up with more water if needed. If you notice any froth forming on the surface, skim it off and discard it. Once the pork has finished simmering, turn off the heat, place the lid on your pan and allow it to cool down completely.
- Take the cooked pork slices from the pan (you don’t need this liquid anymore for the kakuni, but don’t throw it away as it makes a great starting point for a stock, soup or ramen broth) and place them on a chopping board. The meat will have shrunk at a different rate to the skin; to neaten up the slices just trim off any overhanging skin and fat with a knife, then cut the slices every 2″ to give you even cubes.
- Peel and slice the ginger, and place it in a saucepan along with the dashi, soy sauce, mirin, sake and sugar. Stir thoroughly, then add the pork cubes and place on a low heat. Slowly bring the dashi and pork to a boil before turning down the heat and simmering it for an hour without stirring.
- Transfer half of the cooking liquid into a smaller pan and boil hard to reduce it to a thick glaze. Remove the pork pieces from the dashi broth, then add them to the glaze before serving in bowls lined with the leek flowers.
Serves 4-6 people (or makes an excellent topping for up to 10 bowls of ramen)