The Foodosophy of Kakuni


Kakuni: Guu Original on Thurlow

Kakuni’s origins, like many dishes in Japanese cuisine, are in China. This homey dish of cubed, slow braised pork belly is surely a descendant of one of China’s most iconic dishes: red cooked pork – or “Dongpo pork” mythically named after the man who purportedly invented the dish. Kakuni and Dongpo pork are both rustic dishes which require more time than effort to make.

To make kakuni, square-cut pork belly is simmered slowly in a sweet sake-based braise until the collagen and proteins from the belly break down thus rendering the cubes of meat fork-tender and sticky with gelatin. The preparation is so simple that the traditional technique becomes a springboard for experimentation and modernization. Two very good modern, yet very different examples which embellish on the traditional dish are served at Guu (Original on Thurlow) and Juno.

Guu (Original)
838 Thurlow St
Vancouver, BC

The kakuni at the boisterous Guu (Original on Thurlow) could be my favourite one in town. The fatty belly is soft and gelatinous and is served with a swipe of mustard, a steamed bun, a poached egg, and a generous pool of the braising liquid. This is one dish where the use of the word “unctuous” as an adjective is nearly unavoidable – and perhaps even forgivable. The braising liquid, which becomes fully blended with the poached egg, provides a savoury and quite satisfying finish. A spoon becomes ineffective and you really must just tip the bowl into your mouth to get every last drop.
Guu on Urbanspoon

Kakuni: Juno

Juno Bistro
572 Davie St
Vancouver, BC

Juno’s chef Jun Okamura honed his craft in Los Angeles. Following the cues from California-Japanese cuisine, he takes a modern and deliberately “West Coast” approach to much of his cooking. He is not shy to use ingredients (brown rice!) and techniques (blowtorch aburi!) that would make a purist cringe. His rendition of kakuni is decidedly “fusion” with the addition of red wine to the braise. The meat of choice is kurobota (Japanese black “Berkshire” pig) from Two Rivers meats, a well known purveyor of high-quality pork. Here, the meat is leaner – primarily muscle with very little of the gelatinous and fatty layering exhibited in a more traditional kakuni cut (such as the one at Guu). He does stick to tradition with the addition of a soft-boiled “ramen egg” (hanjuko tamago).

Juno Vancouver Sushi Bistro on Urbanspoon

A crosspost from Wisemonkeys.

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7 thoughts on “The Foodosophy of Kakuni

  1. A very nice look at two presentations of this classic dish. I tend to associate it with home cooking, but do see it more and more in izakaya (even in Canada) these days, which is quite interesting.

  2. Interesting – didnt realize the Chinese origins of the dish, but should have realized it. Im wondering though, based on the differences between these preparations and the Chinese version, what are the defining characteristics of Kakuni? Is it slow simmered pork braised where the collagen is gelatinous? Is it flavour? Is it just slow simmered Kurobata? Any thoughts?

  3. I always had a feeling the origins of Kakuni had some kind of link to Chinese cuisine. Some interesting insight into a dish I never thought too much about before. It’s also intriguing to see two different presentations and interpretations of the same dish.

  4. There are far more similarities than differences between dongpo pork and kakuni. Both are slow-braised in a soy and rice wine based liquid; both use cubes of pork cut into approximately 2″ squares. The Chinese call this braising technique “red cooking.” To make dongpo pork, Chinese cooks use spices (eg five-spice, star anise), and fermented bean pastes that the Japanese typically do not use. (You will see regional variants in Japan that do use bean pastes – eg okara). (One of the most famous Chinese regional variants of Dongpo is from Hunan and called “Mao’s Pork” after the Chairman who declared dongpo pork his favourite dish.)

    I do find the Japanese versions much sweeter than the Chinese versions and they do taste quite different….and they look different – the Japanese versions are not quite as “red” as Chinese red cooked pork.

    Defining a canonical rendition Dongpo pork, like many home-style dishes, is challenging, but the ones made in Huangzhou (where this dish was purportedly invented by a man named Su Dongpo) should be considered. Huangzhou is a port city and there was a direct trading route and immigration between it and the port cities in Kyushu. In some parts of Japan the dish is called “tonporo” (“dongpo rou” – “dongpo meat” accounting for the Chinese-to-Japanese pronunciation).

    So what defines a “kakuni”? I would say it is characterized by the two-inch cubed pork, the slow-braising technique, the soy-sake-sugar-mirin-dashi broth. The dashi, sake and mirin make it Japanese, though one might argue that the Chinese have their own forms of rice wine and seaweed-driedfish flavourings. The use of kurobuta is not requirement – you can use just regular pork. As you can see, the lines are very blurry.

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