Tokachi Butadon (Japanese Pork Bowl)
Created in the city of Obihiro, which is in the Tokachi region of Hokkaido, Tokachi Butadon(十勝豚丼), is a hearty grilled pork bowl that was initially created as a satisfying meal for hungry farmers. Much like unagi, the pork for this Butadon is traditionally made by grilling and glazing thick slices of fatty pork with a sweet and savory sauce. For my version, I’ve adapted the recipe so that you can make this classic Japanese Pork Bowl without a grill while still getting the caramelized glaze and smoky char-grilled flavor.
Why This Recipe Works?
- The pork is first seared in a pan. This not only cooks the pork through, but it also evaporates moisture around the surface of the pork, which helps the sauce to adhere to it.
- By cooking the sauce to a temperature of 230 degrees F (110 C), most of the water has burned off, and the sugars have started to caramelize. This makes the glaze thick enough to coat the pork in a thick layer in one go, so you don’t have to baste it repeatedly.
- Using a kitchen torch to finish it off caramelizes the Butadon sauce around the meat’s exterior while slightly charing the edges. This gives the pork a crisp texture around the edges while lending a smoky flavor that you can’t get using a pan alone.
Ingredients for Japanese Pork Bowl
- Rice – This wouldn’t be a donburi without the rice, and the rice used in Japan is short-grain. It has a higher ratio of amylopectin to amylose, which gives it a soft, sticky texture that compliments the sweet and savory grilled pork.
- Pork – Due to the high temperatures involved and the two-stage cooking process, it’s essential to use a pork cut with a high fat content. Otherwise, the meat will get dried out and chewy by the time you have the right amount of caramelization on the outside. My favorite is pork belly, but a well-marbled pork shoulder will work as well.
- Sake – Contrary to popular belief, the role of sake here is not to add alcohol, but rather to impart umami into the sauce (otherwise, you just have sweet soy sauce). The fermentation process the rice undergoes to make sake produces a high concentration of amino acids (such as glutamate), which creates the taste of umami. Other fermented beverages such as wine and beer contain some amino acids, but they’re at a lower concentration. Also, both of these beverages have other flavors and tastes (such as tartness and bitterness) that will throw off the taste of your sauce. If you’re concerned about the alcohol content of the sauce, you don’t have to worry. Ethanol turns to vapor at 78 degrees C. The sauce gets cooked to 110 degrees C, so the alcohol will have burned off by the time you eat it.
- Soy sauce – There’s no need to get fancy here. I just used regular Kikkoman. That being said, the formulation of Kikkoman for the Japanese market and foreign markets is apparently different, so if you can find it, I recommend getting the imported stuff from Japan.
- Mirin – I’ve long avoided using mirin in my recipes because most of the mirin available outside of Japan is fake. It’s cheap alcohol with flavorings, corn syrup, and MSG. However, if you can get real mirin, it adds a beautiful depth of flavor and mellow sweetness to the Butadon sauce. How do you tell if your mirin is real or not? Check the ingredients. Real mirin should not contain any salt, sugar, corn syrup, flavorings, colorings, or MSG. That being said, if you can’t find mirin, you can make a suitable substitute by mixing 2 parts Shaoxing wine or sake with 1 part sugar.
- Sugar – I like using unrefined evaporated cane sugar for this because it lends some caramel and molasses notes. You can also use light brown sugar.
- Garnish – These pork bowls are typically garnished with green peas, edamame, or shiraganegi (the white part of welsh onions shredded into thin strings). I prefer using scallions because they add a pop of color while imparting a nice fresh flavor to the fatty pork.
How to Make Japanese Pork Bowl
The first thing you want to do is cook some Japanese short-grain rice. I’m going to assume you can handle that on your own, but if you’d like to see a tutorial, let me know in the comments below.
Next, you want to make the Butadon sauce for the pork bowl. Add the sake, soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and a smashed clove of garlic to a pot and bring this to a boil. Adjust the heat to maintain a low boil, but keep a close eye on it so that it doesn’t boil over. The sauce is done when it’s the consistency of maple syrup, and it hits a temperature of 230 degrees F (110 C).
For the pork, slice it into 1/4-inch thick pieces against the grain, and sprinkle it evenly with salt.
Get a frying pan nice and hot over medium-high heat and add the pork in a single layer. If you’re using pork belly, you’ll want to flip it over every few seconds to keep it from curling, but for other cuts of pork, you can let it brown on one side before flipping it.
Once the pork is cooked through and lightly browned on both sides, transfer it to a plate. Repeat this process if needed until you’ve cooked all of the pork.
Remove the pan from the heat and drain off the oil. Use paper towels to soak up any remaining oil in the pan. This is important as the oil not only adds unnecessary fat, it can also prevent the glaze from sticking to the pork.
Put the pan back on the heat and add 1/4 cup of the Butadon sauce to the pan. Return the pork to the pan, and flip the pieces over repeatedly until they’re well glazed.
Set a wire rack on a flame-proof tray and transfer the pork onto the rack.
Use a kitchen-torch to torch one side of the pork until the glaze is caramelized, and the pork is lightly charred around the edges.
To assemble the pork bowl, split the cooked rice between two bowls and drizzle a few spoonfuls of sauce over the rice.
Arrange the grilled pork on top of the rice and garnish your Butadon with chopped scallions.
Other Rice Bowl Recipes
- Oyakodon (chicken and egg bowl)
- Gyudon (beef and onion bowl)
- Chicken Katsudon (chicken cutlet bowl)
- Tanindon (beef and egg bowl)
Tokachi Butadon(十勝豚丼) literally means “Tokachi-style pork bowl,” and the name is a reference to the region in central Hokkaido where the dish originated. It was created by a shop named Panchou in the city of Obihiro in the 1930s as a hearty meal to help farm laborers power through the day.
Inspired by unagi donburi, the shop owner wanted to make a high-energy for his customers, but unagi was not locally available locally at the time. Instead, he substituted a similarly rich cut of pork and grilled and glazed it in a savory-sweet sauce before serving it over a bowl of rice.
Until 2003, this grilled pork bowl was the standard-bearer for Butadon in Japan, but the BSE related ban on US beef imports that year caused national gyudon chains to start using pork instead of beef in their rice bowls. Since these were made using paper-thin slices of pork simmered with broth and onions, it was a dramatically different dish. To differentiate them, the original grilled style of Butadon was renamed after the region from which it came.
To-ka-chi Bu-ta-don has six syllables, and each one is pronounced as follows:
to like toad
ka like copy
chi like cheek
bu like boo
ta like top
don like donut, not “dawn”
The tastiest is pork belly because it holds up to the high temperature cooking the best; however, a whole bowl of pork belly can get a little heavy. That’s why I usually go half and half with pork belly, and another well-marbled cut, such as pork shoulder.
You could use this sauce and method to make a rice bowl from other types of meat with a high fat content such as skin-on chicken thigh and well-marbled beef. That being said, you couldn’t call it Butadon, since there’s no pork in it.
If you put the rack to the top position, you can get similar caramelization and browning. The problem is the amount of time it takes to get the browning. A torch will caramelize and brown almost instantly, while it will take a minute or more to get a similar result in the broiler. Since the pork is already fully cooked, this extra time can make it tough. For those of you thinking you could get around this by cooking the pork less in the pan, this won’t work because the higher moisture content of the partially cooked pork will cause the glaze to loosen, and it won’t adhere properly.
- ½ cup sake
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ⅓ cup mirin
- 40 grams evaporated cane sugar (~1/4 cup light brown sugar)
- 1 large clove garlic (smashed)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 450 grams pork belly
- 1 scallion (green parts chopped for garnish)
- 2 servings cooked short-grain rice
- Add the soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar, and smashed clove of garlic to a pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to keep the pot from boiling over, and cook the sauce until the bubbles become big and glossy and the sauce has reached a temperature of 230 degrees F.
- Sprinkle the pork evenly with the salt.
- Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat until very hot and then add the pork in a single layer (you may need to do this in batches). Fry until the pork has slightly browned on one side, and then flip it over and fry the second side.
- Transfer the pork to a plate and repeat until all of the pork has been fried.
- Wipe out the oil from the pan after the last of the pork has been fried.
- Add 1/4 cup of the sauce to the pan and reduce until the sauce is very thick and viscous and then return the pork to the pan. Flip the meat around several times until it is glazed with the sauce.
- Transfer the pork to a wire rack set over a heat-proof tray. Use a kitchen torch to brown the glaze and meat until it is lightly charred around the edges.
- To assemble the pork bowls, add a portion of rice to two large bowls. Drizzle a tablespoon or two of sauce around the rice. Arrange the grilled pork on top of the rice. Garnish with scallions.