While most of the world knows Japan for only one soup, there's more to the Japanese soup repertoire than miso soup. Tonjiru (豚汁), which is also sometimes called Butajiru, literally means "pork soup" and is a mainstay at the dinner table during the frigid months of winter. To make the preparation fast, the pork is usually sliced thin and the vegetables are chopped small. For my version I've turned it into a stew, with big chunks of pork belly, konnyaku, carrot, and taro.
Burdock is full of fiber and is a great source of iron and other minerals, but it also adds a wonderful earthy flavor that compliments the pork. Once peeled, it tends to oxidize very quickly, so you need to quickly get it into a bowl of cold water that's been acidified.
While I love having rich, tender chunks of pork belly in this stew, you can use a slightly leaner cut such as spare ribs or pork shoulder. Please don't ruin a perfectly good loin by using it in a stew. Long cooking times work in favor of tougher fattier cuts of meat, turning the sinewy connective tissues into silky collagen and rendering out the excess fat. Because leaner cuts of meat are short on fat and collagen, they start out tender, but quickly turn into tough dry nuggets with a texture akin to damp dryer lint.
For those of you that don't eat pork, you could substitute chicken thigh meat for the pork. Since chicken takes less time to become tender than pork, you can also cut out the 40 minutes of simmering time, adding all the vegetables in with the water. For vegans, there's a similar soup called Kenchinjiru you might want to try.
- Put the pork belly into a cold pan, and turn on the heat to medium. The pork should release some fat as the pan heats up so you shouldn't need to add any oil. Once some oil has rendered out, add the white parts of the scallions and ginger and fry until the surface of the pork is cooked and a brown crust has formed on the bottom of the pan.
- Turn up the heat to high and then add the sake. Use the liquid to scrape up the brown fond on the bottom of the pan, and boil until there's almost no liquid left.
- Add the water and kombu, and then bring to a boil. Skim off any foam that accumulates at the surface until there's no more foam accumulating.
- Cover with a lid and turn down the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook for about 40 minutes.
- Meanwhile, fill a bowl with cold water, then add a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice. Working quickly, peel the burdock, then use a sharp knife to whittle away chips of burdock as you rotate the root with your other hand.
- Remove the kombu and ginger. Skim off as much excess fat as you can. Drain the burdock and add it to the tonjiru along with the carrots, konnyaku and taro.
- Simmer until the vegetables are tender. Turn down the heat to low, then add the miso. Because the salinity of miso varies by brand, taste the soup and add more miso if it needs more salt.
- Add the green parts of the scallions, and serve.