I got lost in Tokyo Station and found the perfect comfort food: Kakuni
Each dish exists on its own continuum, but they are bound together through our personal experience. You eat a meal that blows your mind. This dish is making its way into your life. In a year the garlic will become heavier. The next, a little lighter on the char. Or maybe you prefer more chili, more lime, more spiciness until a meal’s story interlocks with your own.
About eight years ago I found myself lost in Tokyo Station. This was only my second time in Japan. I had flown in from Houston to see friends. We had planned to hunt down Tsukemen in a hidden spot in the terminal’s basement before heading to the queer bars in Shinjuku Ni-chome – but of course I took a wrong turn. And that first mistake led to a second. Eventually I found myself exhausted in the bowels of one of the busiest transportation hubs in the country. Before I got into a real panic attack, I ducked through the nearest exit, down a few alleys, and into an izakaya with a broken sign and a patio full of potted plants.
I was handed a tiny saucer of grated radish, a sapporo and a gleaming platter of sauce-laden kakuni.
The bar was tiny. And barren. A matron stood next to a bartender. They served a couple of staff who were already a few beers into their evening. But one of the men made room for me on a stool and his friend offered me a cigarette – they wanted to know who I was, why I was in their country and how the hell I got so lost?
The first man worked for Toyota. The other guy did something with cameras. I was a professional idiot who managed to ruin an evening. But maybe, the first guy asked, could a beer and a bite make things better? So after a moment of dismay I asked the matron what he had and was handed a tiny saucer of grated radish, a sapporo and a shiny platter of sauce-laden kakuni.
Kakuni means “cooked square” 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 incredibly simple: after lightly searing your pork for color, simmer the meat until tender to the touch and most of the fat is removed. As a result, the base ensemble gives your meal a silky, melted taste. For all its simplicity, the dish is extremely comforting. You’re just as likely to find it on a bar’s menu as you are in someone’s nightly rotation at home.
But the origins of kakuni are actually Chinese. The dish most likely originated from dongpo pork: a Chinese stewed 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 lies in the flesh fatness. As the generations passed and the Chinese presence became more ingrained on the island of Kyushu, Japanese-Chinese dishes – chuka-ryori – began to develop. Gyoza, ramen and ebi chili gained prominence as distinct and unique entities. As Namiko Hirasawa Chen of Japanese cooking website Just One Cookbook notes, “The Japanese are embracing this localized Chinese food wholeheartedly, so much so that the number of Chinese restaurants in the country is second only to Japanese restaurants.” And in In cities like Nagasaki, the dish is tied to the land itself: restaurants across the city specialize in their own variations, united in their quest for deliciousness.
Prior to my first few bites of Kakuni, I was dealing with pork belly infrequently and sporadically: it wasn’t generally my cut of choice. I didn’t eat a lot of bacon as a kid. I hadn’t fallen in love with Korean barbecue yet. Among the Jamaican pork dishes I grew up with, thicker cuts were generally used. And the same was true of the many banh mi I’d eaten all over Houston and the backyard cookouts I was privy to in Texas: great care was taken to avoid the pork’s fatness. I didn’t know what I was missing.
So I took a bite. And then another. Each chew felt like striking an entirely new set of chords: velvety and encouraging, enhanced by its directness. Then it was gone.
It’s amazing how kitchens are sewn together. If the KO, lu rou fan, dew eu bah or endless variations of braised pork belly, similar notions of comfort live in the plastic borders between us. They share the security of simplicity. The robustness of knowing what lies behind time well invested. Lately I’ve been cooking kakuni at home in a Donabe, in portions I spread out for the week; In an age that has been wildly confusing for even the more privileged among us, they have served as their own little comforts. An overly crowded bar on a stuffy evening. If we’re lucky, some of our favorite foods can do just that: add us to the pantheon of history, connecting a meal across cuisines, countries and lives.
But that night I didn’t think about any of that. I didn’t care either. i was lost Lost! So I ordered more Kakuni. And a beer too.
One of my new friends told me he loved San Antonio. The other asked if I was interested in photography. I texted my buddies to pick them up later and the rain outside only pounded harder. More people entered the bar. The room became lively. I had found a home far away from home. The silliest stroke of luck, but a blessed one nonetheless.
Recipe: Kakuni (braised pork belly)
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/30/magazine/kakuni-recipe.html I got lost in Tokyo Station and found the perfect comfort food: Kakuni