Chashu is a dish made of fattier cuts of pork that are braised over low heat for a very long time. The low, slow cooking, renders out the fat while turning the tough collagen in the meat into gelatin which keeps the meat moist while making it meltingly tender.
If you're thinking the name sounds an awful lot like the Chinese barbecued pork dish Char Siu, you'd be right, because at some point in the past, they were one and the same. Chashu is often served atop another dish that also originated in China: ramen. Like its noodley brethren, it's evolved over the past century to the point where it bears little resemblance to the original dish it was based on.
In the hyper competitive world of ramen in Japan, each shop jealously guards its secret Chashu formula. Revealing these secrets is the kind of offense that will have a dozen masked men in black ninja suits at your door to make you "disappear" in the middle of the night.
Such is my addiction to this luscious dish, that I've set aside all concerns about personal safety to recreate Santouka Ramen's famed "toroniku" Chashu, which can best be described as savoury butter with bits of tender pork suspended inside. It literally melts into a pool of flavour on your tongue and easily makes the list of things I'd want to have in my last meal.
The trick is to use pork cheek instead of the usual pork shoulder or belly that most people use for Chashu. If you've never tried it before, pork cheek is porcine perfection, taking the best qualities of a tasty cut like shoulder and marbling in a lattice of fat between the pink strands meat. When braised, the pieces of meat are almost imperceptibly suspended in a mesh of fat, that instantly liquefies when it enters your warm mouth.
For the braising liquid, I used a combination of soy sauce and miso. It's not a particularly orthodox approach to Chashu making, but I'm pretty sure it's what Santouka does. To bring my version full circle back to its Chinese roots, I've also added garlic, ginger, and white pepper which give the meat some character without overwhelming its porky goodness.
I serve this over my home-made tonkotsu ramen, but it's also great on top of rice, or in fried rice; I've even been know to add it to pastas or a Banh Mi or two.
- Put all the ingredients in a pot large enough to accommodate the pork in one layer but small enough so the liquid more or less covers the pork. Partially cover with a lid and simmer over medium low heat for one hour, or until a fork easily passes through the meat. Allow the pork to cool in the braising liquid then remove the meat from the liquid. Wrap in plastic and chill in the refrigerator (this makes it easier to slice).
- Slice the Chashu hinly against the grain and serve on top of ramen (the heat from the soup should warm it up). This is also great sliced a little thicker and warmed up on top of a bowl of rice with a little of the braising liquid drizzled on top.