Japanese Braised Pork Belly


Succulent buta no kaku-ni is a rich and warming cold weather Japanese dish requiring hours of steaming or simmering. Spring is now leafy and flowerful, but the temperatures vary from freezing one day, to 80° the next, so this was a dish of opportunity—because the day was chilly, and because the pork belly was in my freezer (which I would empty out more quickly if I didn’t keep buying stuff).

Both Hiroko Shimo’s A Japanese Kitchen and Shizuo Tsuni’e Japanese Cooking indicate that ‘buta kakuni’ came to Japan by way of Nagasaki. The sea port in Nagasaki was the only contact for Japan with the Western world (Chinese, as well?). Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Nagasaki was exposed to foods and cooking techniques (among many other things) from China, Portugal, Holland, and Great Britain. The foreign recipes were redeveloped by the Japanese to make them their own “Shippoku Ryouri.” The foods of such a meal are served Chinese-style, with serving dishes in the center of the table, rather than placing each of the components before each diner at the table—sort of ‘family-style,’ which is meant to encourage communal conviviality.

What interests me is that many of the now popular Chinese and Western influenced recipes in Japan are part of a cuisine (or a whole cultural group of recipes) developed in this particular place. Castella (sponge cake), champon noodles, many Chinese sweets, tonkotsu (pork stew), satsuma-age (fried fishcakes often included in oden), and others I have blogged about (Tessie: go back and find them!!).

Through net surfing and time-wasting various research about braised pork belly, I found braised pork belly was developed from a Chinese pork dish called tonporo. In Okinawa it may be called ‘rafte’ and in Nagasaki it may be called ‘toubani.’

In the Chinese version of this dish, fatty pork belly (flank) is first cooked in oil and simmered in a flavored broth. Japanese cooks steam (or simmer) the pork (with daikon or soy milk or okara: a byproduct of making tofu) before simmering in the broth.

Japanese Braised Pork Flank
Buta no Kakuni
serves 4
page 435

  • 3 cups peeled and grated daikon, with juice
  • 1 ½ pounds unsalted pork flank
  • one 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
  • one 4-inch piece of kombu, soaked in a qt. of water for 1 hour
  • ½ cup saké
  • 3 Tablespoons mirin
  • ¼ cup shoyu
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 7 ounce bunch of spinach
  • 1 Tablespoon thin hot mustard paste
  • sliced daikon or hard boiled eggs are sometimes added during the last simmering

Set a bamboo steamer over plenty of water in a deep pot over high heat.
Use a heat-proof dish which will fit in the steamer. Put one cup of the grated daikon into the bowl. Put the pork on top of the daikon, and cover the pork with remaining daiko. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and place it into the steamer.
Cook the pork over high heat for 2 hours. During the cooking, occasionally check the level of water in the pot. Add boiling water as necessary.
Place a bowl of lukewarm water in the sink. Remove the pork from the steamer and rinse it gently but thoroughly. Drain and wipe it dry. Cut the pork into 2-inch thick crosswise slices. You can refrigerate for as long as a day.
Scatter the ginger slices in a pot large enough to hold the pork in one layer. Lay the pork on the ginger slices.
Remove the kombu from its soaking liquid, and add the liquid to the pot, discarding the kombu. Add the sake and mirin. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to very low, and cook at a gentle simmer, covered with a drop lid for 30 minutes.
Add the shoyu, and cook for 20 minutes, turning the pork several times for even flavoring and coloring. At this point you can refrigerate the pork, covered, for use later in the day. If you do, reheat the pork, covered, over very low heat before proceeding with the recipe.
Add the sugar to the pork, and cook, uncovered, over very low heat for 3 to 5 minutes. By this time the sauce should be quite thick. If not, remove the pork and ginger, and cook the sauce a little more to reduce it.
In a medium pot of boiling water, parboil the spinach for 1 minute. Cool the spinach in ice water, and drain it. Cut the spinach into 2-inch lengths.
Arrange the spinach on a large platter. Place the ork on top, and drizzle it with the sauce left in the pot. Garnish the dish with a little mound of mustard paste on the edge of the platter.

More notes: Daikon radish (ダイコン raphanus sativus subsp. longipinnatus) is rich in digestive enzymes such as diastase, amylase, and esterase, so it tenderizes the pork. It has indeed seemed to be effective in several recipes I’ve posted. Daikon is the most widely grown vegetable in Japan. It can be prepared almost anyway you like, including raw, fried, grilled, boiled, pickled, stir-fried it, sliced it into salads or served it with sushi or sashimi. Daikon is rich in enzymes so aides in digestion of fatty oils and starchy foods.

While this recipe was steaming with all that grated daikon, the smell reminded me of boiling cabbage or broccoli, ie not very pleasant, even though they are not at all related to daikon.
The smell reminded me of steaming rutabagas (see comments in my “pastie’ post), so it’s interesting to learn that rutabaga, also called swede, is a cross between cabbage and turnip.
Turnip (Brassica rapa), a vegetable with edible taproot and leaves (turnip greens); Cabbage (Brassica oleracea), a vegetable with edible leafy heads; Rutabaga (Brassica napobrassica), a vegetable with edible taproot and leafy greens.
v=∫ M


4 thoughts on “Japanese Braised Pork Belly

  1. Tess, love your site! A great resource for my attempts to make ramen at home. Question, do you leave the skin on the pork belly for the kakuni or do you de-skin?

    • Hi Theo!

      I’m very happy that you are enjoying my site!

      Yes, the mysteries of pork belly: skin on or not? Some stores sell it with the skin removed, but the Asian stores seem to carry it with the skin on. It is also usually frozen so it is difficult to tell if it is pork belly or “side pork.” I think the side pork is a part of the belly, but includes some of the ribs: sort of higher up on the pig which may have tougher skin.

      In this post, the cut I had included (excuse the possibly disturbing detail) a couple of nipples. I did remove those, but left most of the skin/fat layer. Using the steaming with daikon plus braising technique in this recipe, I think that the skin even higher up on the animal would be tender enough to leave on. I mean even if the skin is higher up and likely not so tender to begin with, this method would make it good to eat. (perhaps not heart-wise, but this recipe is meant to be eaten in small portions as a treat)

      If you try this, I’d suggest scoring the skin/fat layer into a grid so the meat will ‘absorb’ the flavor of the braising liquid.

      If you have a cut of meat with tougher skin and try to roast it with dry heat, I think the skin might become tough. Also, there may be more fat than you want to eat just under the skin: the layer with most fat. But you could cut that off after it’s cooked.

      Hope this clarifies?

    • If you are after making ramen, might I suggest that rather than this recipe for a pork topping, you try the chashu recipe instead. https://1tess.wordpress.com/2008/05/03/ramen-toppings-chashu/
      It is made with pork belly, but the liquid it is cooked in makes an excellent version of shoyu ramen. https://1tess.wordpress.com/2008/05/04/shoyu-ramen/

      I’ve been working and out of town, so my posts are about a week’s worth not published, but I just posted about ramen stock again. And I have an unfinished post about making the chashu which I hope to get online very soon…

      Some yummy shoyu ramen!!!

  2. Pingback: Nagasaki-Style Braised Pork: Buta Kaku-ni « Tess's Japanese Kitchen

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