Pork belly is one of those unctuous culinary pleasures that you can’t resist taking another bite of, despite its richness. The magic of pork belly is in the way the fat and meat are distributed; either one on its own would be cloyingly rich or insipidly bland, but layer the fat and meat like an opera cake, you end up with a gloriously moist and tender morsel that bathes your mouth in flavor with each bite.
Buta no Kakuni (豚の角煮) which literally translates to “pork cut square and simmered” is the way that pork belly is most often prepared in Japan. Like ramen and gyoza, kakuni has its roots in Chinese cuisine, and this dish in particular started with Dongpo Pork (东坡肉)
As it worked its way from China to Okinawa to Nagasaki, the dish evolved, adapting to local ingredients and tastes. For my version, I like to use dried sardines to add some oomph to the broth while I include some ginger and garlic to smooth over any overly aggressive fish and pork notes. I've also changed my method since I first published this dish, preferring to brown the pork belly first rather than just braising it. This adds complexity to the flavor, though if you prefer a lighter dish, just give the pork a five minute boil in water before adding it to the rest of the ingredients to simmer.
Cooking over low heat for a long period of time renders out much of the fat, and the collagen breaks down into gelatin, making the entire thing dissolve in your mouth on contact. Buta no Kakuni is pretty awesome with some hot mustard and and a frosty mug of beer, or sliced up and placed on a bed of hot rice. The braising liquid can be diluted and turned into an awesome broth for for a bowl of buta udon.
One of the most important points for this dish is to chose good pork belly. Japanese often refer to pork belly as sanmainiku which literally means "three layer meat", referring to the quintessential pork belly that has three even layers of meat sandwiched between three layers of fat. This is important because uneven layers upset the balance of the meat and fat, resulting in a kakuni that's either tough and stringy or excessively greasy.
This dish inspired me to use the process for duck legs, and the resulting dish, Japanese Style Broast Duck, is definitely worth giving a try.
- Cut the pork into 2 ½" squares.
- Put the pork belly, fat side down, in a small heavy bottomed pot (such as a dutch oven) that's just large enough to hold the pork in a single layer. Put the pot over medium high heat and let the pork fry undisturbed until it's golden brown on the fat side.
- Flip each piece over and brown the other side, then transfer to a plate.
- Add the ginger, garlic, and niboshi and and fry until browned and fragrant.
- Add the sake and boil until you no longer smell alcohol.
- Add the water, sugar, soy sauce, salt, and return the pork to the pot. Bring to a simmer and then turn down the heat and cover with a tight fitting lid.
- Simmer until the pork belly is fall-apart-tender (about 2 hours).
- Strain the braising liquid and if you are going to serve the kakuni right away, skim off the extra fat. It's best if you let this sit in the fridge overnight though as this gives the meat a chance to absorb more flavor, and it will make removing the excess fat a lot easier.
- To serve, gently reheat the pork belly. Slice and serve with some of the braising liquid, hot mustard and steamed greens.