Chunks of pork belly are browned then braised in soy sauce, mirin, dashi, ginger, garlic, star anise and sugar until the fat literally melts in the mouth. Buta no kakuni, or Japanese braised pork belly, is therefore cooked in two stages. The browning gives the meat texture and prevents it from acquiring the mouthfeel of boiled meat. The braising gives the meat its flavor as it slowly soaks up the richness of the seasonings and spices.
There are several versions of buta no kakuni on the web — one flavors the braising liquid with dried sardines, another uses chicken stock instead of plain water and still another requires simmering the pork with aromatics before it is braised. All the Japanese braised pork belly recipes I have read, however, start with browning the pork.
It is traditional to use pork belly cubes but if, like me, you only have an hour and a half or so to get lunch ready, slicing the pork belly into pieces about an inch thick cuts the cooking time tremendously.
My recipe for buta no kakuni is simple. After browning the pork, I removed them from the pan, sautéed the aromatics then boiled the aromatics with the mirin until the liquid was reduced by half. The browned pork went back into the pan, the rest of the ingredients were added, and everything simmered together for about an hour and a half. We had this Japanese braised pork belly for lunch today and, including preparation time, it was on the dining table in less than two hours.
An important tip before the recipe: The exact cooking time depends on a number of factors including the age of the animal and the size into which the meat was cut. Check the liquid once in a while and make sure there is always at least an inch of liquid in the pot. I was negligent in checking the liquid and, at one point, the mixture got too dry and the sugar caramelized and turned the meat too dark. Not that the caramelization affected the taste of the dish in any negative way but, if you’re aiming for the more traditional look of Japanese braised pork belly, you will want the meat to be less darker than mine.
Japanese Braised Pork Belly (Buta no Kakuni)
- Cut the pork belly into chunks. Two-inch cube would be a good size; cut them smaller if you want a shorter cooking time.
- Peel and slice the ginger.
- Lightly pound the garlic.
- Heat a wide shallow pan and pour in the cooking oil. Add the pork belly pieces and cook over high heat, turning them occasionally, until browned.
- Scoop out the pork and transfer to a plate. Keep warm.
- You'll have more oil in the pan at this point because the cooking oil would have gotten mixed with rendered pork fat. If you have more than a tablespoonful of fat in the pan, pour off the excess.
- Heat the fat and sauté the ginger, garlic and star anise until aromatic.
- Pour in the mirin. Boil until the liquid is reduced by half.
- Put the browned pork back into the pan. Pour in the soy sauce. Add the dashi granules and sugar. Pour in enough water to cover the pork. Bring to the boil, lower the heat, cover and simmer until the pork is so tender that when poked with a fork, the meat breaks apart.
- Serve Japanese braised pork belly over rice, sprinkled with sliced scallions and with a hard-boiled egg on the side.