Japan Eats

Recipe: Buta no kakuni

Buta no kakuni (braised pork belly) is most often associated with the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, and in particular, the city of Nagasaki. It’s famously soft texture and sweet soy flavor has endeared it to people across Japan, and it can now be found on izakaya menus throughout the country.

This Chinese-influenced dish takes some time to prepare, but results in pork so delicate it breaks apart easily with chopsticks.

Buta no kakuni

Buta no kakuni

Ingredients (for 4 people)

  • 800g of pork belly
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 pieces of ginger
  • 1 and 1/2 to 2 cups of sake
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons of sugar
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 1 green onion

Method

Cut the pork into 5 to 6 cm cubes.

Peel the garlic and the ginger, then slice both into pieces 5 mm wide.

Place the pork, garlic, ginger and sake into a pot, then pour in enough water to just cover them. Bring to the boil on a high heat.

Once boiling, turn the gas down and carefully skim off any scum which has formed on the surface of the mixture. Cook on a low heat for a further hour to hour and a half, then allow the mixture to sit overnight.

The next day, remove the solid fat (lard) from the pan. Naturally it ‘s worth keeping to flavor other Chinese-style dishes.

Add sugar to the dish and place it on a medium heat for 20 minutes. Add soy sauce and cook for a further 30 minutes. At this point it’s worth checking the taste in case you want add a little more sugar or soy.

Slice the green onions diagonally into 5 mm pieces and cook these for about 5 minutes. If you prefer the texture of fresh green onions, simply add them to the pot and turn the gas off immediately – they will cook with the remaining heat.

Serve with a small bowl of Japanese mustard.

Restaurant Review: Ryukotei (Kagurazaka)

Finding a place to eat in Kagurazaka between the hours of three and five pm can be a real challenge when you’re determined not to settle for Royal Host or McDonald’s. Enter “Ryukotei”, a two-floor Chinese restaurant right in the thick of the main road going up the hill from Iidabashi station. This place isn’t out to impress, but they will give you enough food to keep you going until it’s time to eat again. 1,000 yen per person should do the trick.

Lunch is served from 11 am until 5 pm which means that this restaurant doesn’t close between meals like the majority of its neighbors. Lunch sets are 1,000 yen, and while the ‘white fish meat and tomato stir-fry‘ is a little too salty, their ‘chicken and cashews stir-fry‘ is definitely worth a try. All sets come with a bottomless bowl of rice, pickled veggies, a small bowl of rather bland egg soup, and a drink.

A la carte dishes are available for between 1000 and 1400, and the ‘dessert of the day’ can be added for 300 yen. Speaking of which, a dessert set (dessert plus a drink) costs 800-900 yen.

Coffee is 400 yen when ordered on its own, and a double espresso is 500. Ryukotei has Chinese tea starting at 550 yen while more common options such as Earl Grey start at 500. Soft drinks start at 500 yen.

The restaurant also has a small selection of alcohol. They get points for serving Premium Malt’s in both a bottle (650 yen) and on tap (550), and for stocking six different types of umeshu (starting from 500). Nihonshu, shochu, and spirits are also available for between 500 and 1,000 yen.

The interior of Ryukotei is clean and comfy while the music isn’t at all distracting on the first floor. The service is fast and courteous, but unfortunately they have chosen to follow their neighbors in offering a very pro-smoking environment.

To be fair, however, they prohibit smoking on the ground floor during the first half of lunch (until three pm) and most of dinner. But for whatever reason they have a two hour gap in the middle where the whole restaurant becomes a smoking area. Nowhere on the menu, front door, or advertisements is this indicated in any way, shape, or form. Ask upon entry if that is something that can ruin a dining experience for you.

The interior is clean and comfortable, and the music on the first floor was quiet enough that it wasn’t distracting.

Directions: Take exit B3 of Iidabashi station and walk up the hill. Ryukotei is on the left across from Royal Host.

Tantanmen

Tantanmen is a popular noodle dish inspired by dandanmian, itself a spicy noodle soup originating in Szechuan Province of southwestern China. The taste of sesame is predominant in both, but unlike dandanmian, the Japanese variant is usually served as a soup.

The key to making this dish is speed. Its important to have the chicken broth and noodles ready at the same time. Leave the noodles too long and they’ll be overcooked. Serve the chicken broth too early and it will be lukewarm.

Steel yourself. This is going to be spicy...

Steel yourself. This is going to be spicy...

Ingredients (for 1 person)

  • 130g fresh Chinese noodles
  • 50g minced pork
  • 1/2 tablespoon tien mien djan
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon shao hsing wine (you can use sake instead)
  • 250cc chicken soup
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons white sesame paste
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese red chili oil
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped Chinese pickled cabbage
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons green onions (cut the white part of the green onion into small pieces)
  • 1/2 stalk of bock choy (Spinach can also used)

Method

First take the sesame paste out of the refrigerator and let it warm to room temperature.

Pour 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil into a frying pan and warm it. Next, place the minced pork into the pan. Raise the heat and when the color changes, pour in the teaspoon of shao hsing wine, the teaspoon of soy and the 1/2 teaspoon of tien mien djan. Stir the liquid into the meat until it’s mixed together well.

Now take your ramen bowl (or large soup bowl) and pour in the 1 teaspoon of vinegar, the 2 1/2 tablespoons white sesame paste and the tablespoon of Chinese red chili oil. Don’t mix them or you’ll lose some of the sesame paste’s aroma.

Both the noodles and the chicken soup now have to be cooked at the same time.

Following the instruction on the side of the package, boil the noodles in a big pan. It’s important to cook the noodles quickly – consider cooking them for a shorter time than suggested on the package.  In a second saucepan, cook the chicken stock. There’s no real need to make this from scratch (but you can if you want to!). I usually use Wueipa or Youki, but any instant stock will do.

Once the chicken stock is ready, pour it into the ramen bowl and use a whisk to mix this and the other ingredients together. Ideally, the noodles will now be ready. Rinse them and lower them into the ramen bowl. Finally, decorate with Chinese pickled cabbage, green onion, bok choy and the minced pork.