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.
838 Thurlow St
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.
572 Davie St
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).