The first time I sampled Butaniku no kakuni at a little Japanese izakaya joint, I called the waitress over and said “One more portion, please!” and I have to admit I’ve been a little obsessed with this Japanese dish — and the regional variations across Asia — ever since.
Butaniku No Kakuni Recipe, Japanese Slow Simmered Pork Belly Dish
Butaniku no kakuni is a slow-simmered pork belly dish and I’ve been making a very simple version of it since that first tasting at a Japanese izayaka.
But it wasn’t until I began my Year of Asian Cookbooks project (which doesn’t appear to be ending) and Australian cookbook author, editor, food and travel writer, and Japanophile Jane Lawson sent me a copy of one of her cookbooks, Zenbu Zen – Finding Food, Culture and Balance in Kyoto, that I found what I now call the definitive version of Butaniku no kakuni.
Jane’s iteration is ultimately richer and sweeter than the other recipe I’d been using.
“Look, I’m a sucker for anything with pork,” she explained when I asked her about the dish. “But I particularly like the silky texture of slow cooked pork belly, and the deep flavours and sweetness developed during slow cooking which help cut through the rich meat and fat.”
The origins and connections between slow-cooked pork belly dishes in Asia has always intrigued me and my interest was piqued further when I read Jane’s book.
At the beginning of her recipe Jane writes that the dish was introduced to Japan from China, which made me wonder if the renditions of the dish from Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, which we could generically call ‘slow-simmered pork belly with hard-boiled eggs’, are Chinese in origin too.
Historically, this makes sense as the Chinese have long traded with the early empires of what we now know as Vietnam and Cambodia, and Chinese merchants and Mon-Khmer tribes settled on the Chao Phraya River in what’s now known as Bangkok long before Tais did. The Japanese were also trading in Hoi An on the central coast of Vietnam at the same time that the Chinese were.
“There are many great dishes shared across borders,” Jane agreed. “Whether in Asia or Europe, I constantly see variations on a theme — with a different name of course — so that you would have no clue they were almost the same recipes until you started researching. What a wondrous thing it would be to know exactly how food has travelled from country to country and how the recipes evolve in each and why… hey there’s a book in that!!”
In fact, Lara and I have been working on an ongoing culinary research project for many years on how food travels and this dish is a perfect candidate — or simply an excuse to return to some of our favourite countries to keep sampling the array of renditions of this luxuriant dish.
About the Butaniku no kakuni recipe
With the Butaniku no kakuni recipe below, there are leeks used in the stock, so I like to also serve some leeks as a side dish, steamed or blanched, and then doused with a little sesame oil.
The snow-peas are a must too, as are the boiled eggs. The pork is so rich and unctuous that you only need a couple — okay, a few — small pieces of pork per person, served with some plain rice.
As Jane says: “You only need a smallish portion (OK, who am I kidding… it’s pork belly), with some rice, greens and pickles to feel really satisfied, so it’s a great main dish for a casual dinner party.”
“If I have some pork bones and scraps left over I’ll simmer it down with ginger and garlic then add some Asian greens, maybe shiitake and bamboo shoots, and sip that as a broth on the side,” Jane also suggested.
“In fact I’m having that tonight with some slowed simmered pork belly finished in a spicy glaze,” she said this afternoon.“Coincidence? Or just too much pork in my life?”
Given that here in Siem Reap, pork, fish and chicken are our staple forms of protein, I make a version of this dish — or one of the other regional versions — at least once a fortnight. You have to make use of the local ingredients, right?
One other quick note: after you’ve browned the pork, do not throw that oil out. It’s essentially pork fat and it’s magical!
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 800g piece of boneless pork belly, cut into 6x4c, rectangular pieces
- 50g fresh ginger, cut into thick slices
- 2 pencil-thin leeks, or 1 small leek, split down the centre, but kept hinged together
- 1 litre (4 cups) nib an dashi or water
- 310ml (1¼ cups) sake
- 1½ tablespoons usukuchi shoyu (light Japanese soy)
- 1½ tablespoons koikuchi shoyu (dark Japanese soy)
- 60g kurosato (Japanese black sugar or dark brown sugar)
- 1½ tablespoons Japanese black vinegar (optional)
- 4 eggs, boiled for 4 minutes, then cooked and shelled (optional)
- 6 blanched, trimmed snow peas (mangetout) to garnish
- karashi (Japanese mustard) or hot English mustard
- Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium–high heat. Add the pork and cook, turning now and then, for about 5 minutes, until golden on all sides. Remove from the pan, place in a colander and pour boiling water over to rinse off the excess oil.
- Place the pork in a large saucepan with the ginger, leek, dashi and sake and bring to the boil, skimming off any scum that rises to the top.
- Add a Japanese drop-lid or a vented cartouche (a round of baking paper, with an air vent cut in the middle). Reduce the heat and simmer for 2 ¼ hours, or until the pork is quite tender.
- Stir in the light and dark shoyu, sugar and vinegar and cook for a further 1 hour, or until the pork is very tender – as knives and forks are not served at Japanese meals, the pork should be tender enough to break with chopsticks.
- Turn off the heat, then remove and discard the leek and ginger. Add the eggs, if using, submerging them in the liquid.
- Allow the pork to sit and soak up more of the sauce for 45 minutes. Alternatively, you can allow the dish to cool slightly, then transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight — if you do this, you’ll be able to scrape off the excess fat that settles on the top of the dish.
- When ready to serve, gently reheat the dish. Carefully cut the eggs in half. Serve garnished with snow peas, with the Japanese mustard on the side, to help cut through the richness.
- If you prefer a thicker sauce, remove the pork and eggs from the pot and thicken the sauce slightly either by reducing it over the heat, or stirring in some kuzu starch or cornflour (cornstarch) that has first been mixed to a paste with a little water.
The recipe is from Zenbu Zen, published by Murdoch Books, and reproduced here with the permission of author Jane Lawson.
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You might get to try Butaniku no kakuni on one of Jane Lawson’s culinary focused Zenbu Tours to Japan. Jane runs small group tours (maximum of 8 people) just a handful of times a year. The next tour, a 12-day/11-night ‘Winter Cuisine and Culture Tour of Kyoto’, runs from 9-20 January 2016, and takes in the tantalising cities of Kyoto, Kanazawa, Nara, and Osaka. In between sampling Jane’s favourite restaurants, participants get to shop the local markets for Japanese ingredients, ceramics, handcrafted knives, and traditional cookware, as well as soak up local culture, explore atmospheric streets, and visit exquisite temples, shrines and gardens.