Owing its heritage to char siu- the bright red, five-spice seasoned barbecued pork served in Cantonese restaurants, chāshū has become perhaps the world’s favourite ramen topping. This is of course for good reason, meltingly tender succulent meat, braised at a low temperature for hours until the tough connective tissues and collagen have turned into silky soft gelatin, yielding to the slightest pressure from a chopstick. The sweet, juicy layers of fat and moist, savoury meat are enhanced further by leaving them in a soy and sake seasoned broth overnight before being thinly sliced and seared in a hot pan to reawaken the glistening fats and juices hiding within the pork.
Chāshū isn’t only enjoyed with soup and noodles however, and one of our favourite ways to eat it is on top of a big bowl of rice as a chāshūdon. Combined with other noodle toppings such as boiled eggs, pink pickled ginger and spicy Korean radish kimchi, you have a dish that gives you the same satisfaction as a deep bowl of brothy noodles but with a lot less effort.
Steaming hot crescent moons, an aromatic mixture of juicy pork, cabbage and garlic chives encased within a chewy skin, fried on one side until shatteringly crisp and served with a slightly sour dipping sauce. Gyoza have become an integral and hugely popular part of nearly every ramenya’s menu, finding their place as an almost essential accompaniment to the deep, nourishing bowls of noodles. When cooked poorly they can drag down a memorable dish of ramen, but if cooked well, with consideration and care, they have the power to raise a lacklustre meal to giddy heights, providing a contrasting texture to the silky noodles and soothing broth. High quality frozen gyoza wrappers are available in most oriental supermarkets these days, meaning that home-made dumplings are more achievable than ever before, and while the filling and pleating of the little parcels can take a while to get used to, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction to be had when you gaze upon a tray of your handiwork.
Hanetsuki gyoza are a recent variation of these classic pot-stickers, where a number of plump, steamed dumplings are fused together in a hot pan with a thin mixture of flour and water. This batter crisps and darkens to form lacey skirts or wings (hane) around the edges of each dumpling, creating more surface area for crunchy, brittle bubbles to form and when placed in the middle of the table, it makes a fantastic tear-and-share style dish, perfect for relaxed dining with friends.
During the twentieth century a large number of Sichuan immigrants made their way to Japan, taking with them their own cuisine and eventually opening up restaurants catering to their fellow countrymen. As time went on, the prickly, spicy dishes that the Sichuan province is famous for changed to suit the local tastes, gone were the copious amounts of dried chillies, pungent garlic and mouth-numbing peppercorns, instead replacing them with savoury miso, aromatic sake and sweet mirin. One popular dish which received this transformation was mapo doufu or pock-marked beancurd; originally a sweat-inducingly hot, oil based sauce with pork and soothing pieces of beancurd to take the edge off the spiciness. The Japanese version of the dish is a much more mellow affair, sweet and salty with a slight hint of chilli-heat, and a thicker, unctuous sauce. This version of mabo tofu has found its place in Japanese cuisine as the nation’s favourite Chinese dish; in a similar way to Britain’s much-loved adaptation of Indian tandoori food, chicken tikka masala, it has evolved from its original form and become a fantastic dish in its own right.
A relatively modern etymological trend in Japan is the use of portmanteau in describing foods, such as anmitsu being a contraction of the words anko and kuromitsu, and in this case mabo tofu donburi- a bowl of rice with a topping- becoming simply mabodon.
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.