Kakuni (braised pork belly) is velvety and heartening, heightened by its directness — and wildly simple to cook.
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Every dish exists in its own continuum, but they become interconnected through our personal experience. You eat a meal that blows your mind. That dish works its way into your life. One year, you go heavier on the garlic. The next, a little lighter on the char. Or maybe you grow to prefer more chile, more lime, more heat, until a meal’s history becomes interlocked with your own.
About eight years back, I found myself lost in Tokyo Station. It was only my second time in Japan. I’d flown in from Houston to see friends. We’d made plans to scarf down tsukemen at a spot tucked in the terminal’s basement, before cartwheeling out to the queer bars in Shinjuku Ni-chome — but of course I took a wrong turn. And that first blunder led to a second. Eventually, I found myself frazzled in the innards of one of the country’s busiest transit hubs. Before I rolled into a proper anxiety attack, I ducked through the nearest exit, down a couple of alleys and into an izakaya with a busted sign and a patio full of potted plants.
The bar was tiny. And barren. A matron stood beside a bartender. They served a pair of salarymen who were already a few beers into their evening. But one of the men made space on a stool for me, and his friend offered me a cigarette — they wanted to know who I was, and why was I in their country and how the hell did I get so lost?
The first man worked for Toyota. The other dude did something with cameras. I was a professional idiot who’d managed to ruin an evening out. But maybe, the first guy asked, a beer and a bite might make things better? So after a moment of consternation, I asked the matron for whatever he was having, and I was handed a tiny saucer of grated daikon, a Sapporo and a shining platter of sauce-laden kakuni.
Kakuni translates to “square simmered” in Japanese. It’s pork belly cooked in a trinity that’s largely synonymous with the country’s cuisine: sugar, sake and soy sauce. The most expensive ingredient is time. But cooking kakuni is wildly simple: After frying your pork lightly for color, you simmer the meat until it’s soft to the touch, rendering most of the fat. This allows the base ensemble to imbue your meal with silky, molten flavor. For all of its simplicity, the dish is wildly consoling. You’re just as likely to find it chalked across the menu board of a bar as in the weeknight rotation of somebody’s home.
But kakuni’s origins are actually Chinese. The dish most likely stemmed from dongpo pork: a Chinese braised pork belly dish believed to have been created during the Song dynasty by Su Dong Po, a poet and painter who lived from 1037 to 1101. In both dishes, the flavor resides in the meat’s fattiness. As generations passed, and the Chinese presence on the island of Kyushu became more deeply entrenched, Japanese-Chinese dishes — chuka ryori — began to emerge. Gyoza, ramen and ebi chili grew to prominence as distinct and singular entities. As Namiko Hirasawa Chen of the Japanese cooking website Just One Cookbook notes, “The Japanese wholeheartedly embrace this localized Chinese food, so much so that the number of Chinese restaurants in the country is second to Japanese restaurants.” And in cities like Nagasaki, the dish is tied to the land itself: Restaurants throughout the city specialize in their own variations, united in their pursuit of deliciousness.
Before my first bites of kakuni, my interactions with pork belly were seldom and sporadic: It generally wasn’t my cut of choice. I didn’t eat much bacon as a kid. I hadn’t yet fallen in love with Korean barbecue. Among the Jamaican pork dishes I grew up on, thicker cuts were generally used. And the same was true of the many banh mi I’d wolfed down across Houston, and of the backyard cookouts I’d been privy to in Texas: Great care was taken to avoid the pig’s fattiness. I didn’t know what I was missing.
So I took one bite. And then another. Each chew felt like strumming an entirely new set of chords: velvety and heartening, heightened by its directness. Then it was gone.
It’s astounding how cuisines find themselves stitched together. Whether thit ko, lu rou fan, tau eu bah or endless variations upon stewed pork belly, similar ideas of comfort live in the plastic borders between us. They share the reassurance of simplicity. The sturdiness of knowing what lies on the other side of time well spent. Lately, I cook kakuni at home in a donabe, in portions I’ll parcel out for the week; in a time that has been wildly discombobulating for even the more privileged among us, they’ve served as their own tiny comforts. A too-full bar on a stuffy evening. If we’re lucky, that’s what some of our favorite dishes can do: adding us to the pantheon of history, connecting a meal across cuisines, across countries, across lives.
But that night, I wasn’t thinking about any of this. Nor did I care. I was lost. Lost! So I ordered more kakuni. And also another beer.
One of my new friends told me he’d loved San Antonio. The other asked if I had any interest in photography. I texted my buddies that I’d catch them later, and the rain outside only beat harder. More folks entered the bar. The room turned lively. A long way from home, I’d found a home. The dumbest stroke of luck, but a blessed one nonetheless.
Recipe: Kakuni (Braised Pork Belly)