Unagi-don (鰻丼), Japanese Style Grilled Freshwater Eel on rice

Unagi-don (鰻丼)

24514408287_d990f9943b_o.jpg

Unagi, or Anguilla japonica (日本鰻 ), is the name of the Japanese freshwater eel that’s grilled over a charcoal fire whilst being coated in sweet soy sauce glaze, a style known as kabayaki (蒲焼). It’s always been one of my personal favourite dishes and it’s what I’d usually order in a restaurant when I feel like having something soulful. Seeing how expensive a bowl of Unagi with rice usually costs, I wanted to see if it where possible to make yourself and this post explores that. Other than its usual preparation method, Unagi is sometimes grilled with salt alone and served with wasabi, a style known as shioyaki (塩焼き).

Today, Unagi is not only eaten all year round, but also throughout the entire world, so much that it has become a staple dish that one expects in any Japanese restaurant outside of Japan. This in return, has caused a decline in freshwater eel stocks to almost endangered levels. To counter the problem, the Unagi industry has switched to commercial farming of freshwater eel to meet the demand of various restaurants around the world. This solution however has not stemmed the problem of declining wild stocks as the current eel breeding technology is in its primitive stages and thus eel farming requires baby eels to be caught from the wild before being raised in captivity. While Unagi live their whole adult life in freshwater, they actually return to the sea to spawn and lay eggs.

Historically, Unagi used to be eaten on the midsummer day of the Ox (土用の丑の日), which falls on the 12th day before the start of autumn, as the protein and vitamin rich Unagi was said to provide strength and energy to workers for the coming year. Lake Hamana in Hamamatsu city, Shizuoka prefecture, is said to be where the best freshwater eel in Japan as the eel here is said to have superior flavour. As almost all of the eel eaten in Japan today is farmed, some farmers are trying to farm eel in a way that mimics wild in as close as possible as wild eel is supposed to have superior flavour due to its fat composition. Unagi naturally feel on plankton during the summer on order to grow as quickly as possible, before slowing down during the autumn in order to start storing fat. In the winter, these eels start to hibernate. These farmers try to mimic the seasons as close as possible in their farming ponds, even going the extra mile to store the Unagi in barrels which are placed in ice-cold streams during the winter months to facilitate hibernation. This process is repeated over several seasonal cycles before the eels are harvested.

39349936542_b73752713f_o.jpg

Unagi itself has an intrinsically rich and strong flavour, which is why the kabayaki style by which it is traditional prepared is so suitable for it as the mixture of caramelised sweet sauce pairs very well with it. The methods for preparing Unagi is so ingrained in Japanese culture that the recipe for making the sweet sauce is kept secret from restaurant to restaurant. While the base of the sauce is said to be made from a mixture of soy sauce, sake, mirin and sugar, the exact proportions vary from restaurant to restaurant, with the head of the restaurant only passing down the secret recipe through the family line. These particular restaurants specialize only in the preparation of Unagi alone and the pot of sauce bubbling away in the kitchen is their most prized possession. This is because the pot of sauce in each restaurant is never allowed to run dry, but is constantly topped up everyday when it starts running low. This causes the flavour to concentrate overtime and the remaining of the previous batches sauce are mixed into the new batch and allowed to slowly caramelise again. It is said some of these sauces have been kept going for over 5 generations and well over 100 years, never being allowed to run dry. In addition to this, some restaurants dip the entire skewers of Unagi into the pot of sauce between periodically while grilling, compared to brushing the sauce unto the Unagi on this grill. This means that some of the juice from the Unagi is mixed into the sauce everyday. Having been repeated everyday for over 100 years, causes each pot of Unagi sauce to develop its own individual complex flavour.

The method for preparing Unagi is also unique compared to other fish. In almost all other fish, the belly of the fish is slit open to remove the guts. In contrast, Unagi is prepared using the kejime method (活け締め), which involves, driving a meuchi (目打ち)  or nail directly through the hindbrain of a live eel, which causes immediate brain death as well as paralysis. This method is superior because it immediately causes the muscles in the eel to freeze, preventing any further use of energy in the body. If you were to kill the eel using any other method, the body of the eel would continue to trash about, causing the consumption of energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). As the eel can no longer breathe (because it’s dead), ATP is broken down through anaerobic glycolysis without oxygen, thus forming lactic acid which would give the eel a sour taste.

After dispatching the eel, the eel is filleted by cutting the down the backbone all the way down the entire length of the spine, splitting the eel open from top while leaving the belly untouched. This method is unique as it causes the belly to be positioned in the middle of the fillet, compared to conventional methods where the belly is cut in half. The innards are then scrapped away and the spine removed by inserting in knife underneath it and running it down the entire length of the eel. The eel is them skewered using bamboo skewers, ready for grilling.

39284770932_596600f232_o.jpg

The entire process of grilling Unagi is actually quite complicated. After being skewered, the Unagi fillets are grilled for a short period of time before being steamed. The initial grilling starts of the mallard reaction while the steaming that follows firms up the meat. The now firm Unagi fillet can then be deboned by hand. After deboning, the fillets is then dipped into the Unagi sauce and finished off on the grill before being served hot, with the skewers removed.

If we were to consider the preparation method for Unagi compared to other fish, it could be easily said that the Japanese overcook their Unagi as seafood usually only requires a short cooking time. However, this method of grilling, steaming and grilling actually creates a melt in your mouth texture. This is because the meat of Unagi is rather firm to start of with, and thus a fast cooking method such a pan searing would result in the Unagi becoming tough and rubbery. Furthermore the blood of the Unagi is poisonous if not cooked and thus this method of cooking ensures that the Unagi is safe to eat.

Grilled Unagi is more commonly served in a bowl, which is known as Unagi-don or Unadon (鰻丼) but can sometimes be served in a lacquered box, or Unaju (鰻重).

39379551741_e2d19350d4_o

Unagi-don (鰻丼)

  • 1kg of salt
  • 500ml Water
  • 500ml Tamari Soy Sauce
  • 250g Granulated Sugar
  • 250ml Mirin
  • 200ml Sake
  • 2 live Unagi, about 800g each
  1. Kill the 2 live Unagi by hitting each Unagi on the head with a mallet. Alternatively, if you have a nail or meuchi (目打ち) and hammer, drive the meuchi down the back of the head of the eel to kill it immediately.
  2. After dispatching the eel, clean the eel by rubbing it with the salt, one handful at a time before washing off with water. The goal here is to remove as much slime as possible from the eel using the salt. This process requires a lot of salt. Repeat several times until clean.
  3. Reattach the eel to the chopping board if using a meuchi. Insert your filleting knife or debabocho (broad-bladed kitchen knife) right behind pectoral fin. and slide the knife along the entire spine to open the back.
  4. Remove innards by scrapping the knife along the eel.
  5. Remove the spine by inserting your knife under spine and running it between the spine and flesh.
  6. Place the fillets flat on the board and scrap the fillet gentle with the knife to remove any dirt.
  7. Wash gently with clean water.

    25765772618_dc6440d262_k.jpg
    Red hot Charcoal Embers
  8. To make the sauce, combine the soy sauce, mirin, water, sake and sugar together in a pot and bring to a boil while stirring constantly to fully dissolve the sugar. Bring up to a vigorous boil to evaporate the alcohol from the sake.
  9. Reduce the sauce to your desired thickness. Add more sugar or soy sauce to taste.
  10. Cut the Unagi fillet into 4 equal portions and skewer each portion with 4 to 5 skewers.
  11. Place the skewers of Unagi over a charcoal grill for 5 to 6 minutes before rotating and grilling for another 5 to 6 minutes
  12. Place the skewers of Unagi in a steamer and steam for 15 minutes.
  13. Dip the skewers of Unagi in the sauce, grill on each side for 2 minutes.
  14. repeat 2 to 3 times.
  15. Remove skewers from the fillets and serve over steaming hot rice.

38436396065_1d6733c3c5_k.jpg

Notes:

  1. It is possible to use this recipe starting with pre-filleted eels but I have yet to see it sold anywhere. The taste of fresh eel is still the best.
  2. Cleaning the eel requires a lot of salt and scrubbing so it is best to wear gloves.
  3. Remember to cook the eel well as uncooked eel blood is poisonous.
  4. The innards of the eel should come out in one go if the eel is fresh.
  5. This recipe also works on catfishes.

Umeboshi Onigiriうめぼしおにぎり

Umeboshi Onigiriうめぼしおにぎり

15753142694_264f1ff5ed_k

Onigiri, the Japanese equivalent of the sandwich, consist of balls of rice stuffed with tasty fillings, wrapped with a crispy piece of nori seaweed. They are extremely popular snacks in Japan and can be brought from almost every convenience store. Other than store brought Onigiri, it is also very easy to make it at home, with mothers making their children different types Onigiri for school lunches. Onigiri comes in different shapes and flavors, with the most common shapes being either triangular or spherical. Examples of classic filling for them are tuna and mayonnaise, spicy cod roe and chicken karraige but really anything goes into them, particularly left overs from the day before. Contrary to what most people believe, Onigiri is not a type of sushi, as it is neither seasoning with rice vinegar, nor does it use short grain rice. The most traditional Onigiri is only seasoned with salt and shaped with hands dipped in salt water. In Korea, an identical dish exists called Samgak-gimbap (삼각김밥) is also eaten as a snack or portable meal with the main difference being the filling, which instead is korean themed.

Here we will be making Umeboshi flavored Onigiri. Umeboshi is a japanese special made by pickling a particular species of plum know as the Japanese apricot or Prunus mume. This fruit is more closely related to the apricot than the plum despite being called a plum in english and is usually harvested early in the summer, around June, before they have ripened and are still a vibrant green color. Traditional Umeboshi Onigiri is made by wrapping rice around some Umeboshi, in my take on the recipe, I have decided to mix the Umeboshi paste into the rice to get a more uniform taste throughout the Onigiri, giving me the option to pair other fillings with the sour taste with the Umeboshi.

20844971713_d6577fff0c_kBesides being the Japanese national flower, one of Japan’s most celebrated symbol is the cherry blossom, also known as sakura. The cherry blossom however, is not the name of one singular species of tree, but any tree species under the genus Prunus. This genus includes the apricot, almond, peach and of course cherry trees. As such, the tree of the Japanese apricot flowers during the start of spring and is celebrated as an indication of the arrival of a new season. Another traditional Japanese belief is that the Japanese apricot wards off evil and misfortune when eaten for breakfast.

A Japanese specialty, the first step to making Umeboshi is by pickling Japanese Apricots in coarse salt along with purple shiso leaves. The flavonoid pigment compounds are extracted from shiso leaves due to the salt and color the Umeboshi, giving them their characteristic reddish-purple color while also imparting the taste of shiso in the Umeboshi. As the name is self-explanatory, boshi means ‘to dry’, and thus the Umeboshi is finished being dried in the sun.

To prepare the Umeboshi for the Onigiri, I usually buy whole Umeboshi and grind it up using a Suribachi and Surikogi. The Suribashi is a Japanese mortar but unlike the traditional heavy stone mortar, the a Suribashi is made from pottery that is glazed on the outside. The unique feature of a Suribachi is that the inside of it is lined with many grooves that makes it an efficient surface to grind food into very fine pieces. A Surikogi on the other hand, is the Japanese version of the pestle, which is made from wood. With the Surikogi being made from wood and the Suribachi being made from pottery, this mortar and pestle is not used to grind up ingredients in the conventional pounding motion, but in a circular movement, where the Umeboshi is ground against the grooves of the Suribachi.

21402285442_ce4bbf8a66_k

Umeboshi Onigiriうめぼしおにぎり

  • Rice
  • Furikake
  • Salt
  • Water
  • Nori (Japanese Dried Seaweed)
  • Whole Umeboshi
  • Suribachi and Surikogi (Mortar and Pestle)
  1. To cook the rice, the easiest way is to use a rice cooker, adding 1.5 times the amount of water to rice in weight.
  2. When the rice is done, use chopsticks or the back of a spoon to mix the rice, which helps give the rice a fluffy texture. There is no need to soak the rice before hand.
  3. Allow the rice to cool down to room temperature before using it to form the onigiri.
  4. Cut the Nori into small rectangles.
  5. Using a small knife, remove the seed from the centre of the Umeboshi. Alternatively, you can use a cherry pitter to remove the seed.
  6. Place the remaining flesh in the Suribachi and use the Surikogi to grind up the Umeboshi using a circular motion.
  7. Add the now ground Umeboshi paste into the rice and mix together evenly. Add a little Umeboshi at a time and taste frequently until the rice is seasoned to your taste.
  8. Next, dissolve some salt into a bowl of water. Dip your hands in the water before shaping the Onigiri to prevent the rice from sticking your hands. The salt in the water helps flavour the Onigiri as well.
  9. Carefully take a handful of rice in one hand and first shape them into a ball. At this point, you can wrap the cut nori around the spherical Onigiri or shape the Onigiri into a triangle before adding the nori. To do that, shape one hand into a U-shape, with your fingers forming one side of the U and your palm forming the other.
  10. Using the other hand’s middle and index finger, form an inverted V shape and press on top of the U-shape formed by the other hand, carefully molding the Onigiri to a triangular shape. Be careful to use just the right amount of pressure of that the Onigiri holds its shape. if too much pressure is used, the rice grains will be crushed and go mushy.

16816179956_c7bbf22b83_k.jpg

Once you have shaped the Onigiri, sprinkle on some furikake on them. Alternatively, it would also have been possible to add the furikake directly onto the rice mixture. Furikake is a type of japanese seasoning that contains tiny pieces of shredded seaweed, sesame seeds, dried Katsuoboshi, and sometimes freeze-dried egg or fish roe. Japanese people sometimes just eat Furikake on plain rice but it works very well with Onigiri.

Once done, enjoy the Onigiri right away or wrap in clingfilm to enjoy later. If eating later, I highly recommend you add the nori only when you eat it, as it would go soft and lose its crispness.

Kurume Tonkotsu Ramen 久留米ラーメン

久留米ラーメン

38689760011_465c39c241_o.jpg

Whenever I meet up with an old friend that I haven’t seen in a long time, we never catch up on each other’s lives over a cup of expresso in a dimly lit chic cafe, instead I’d much rather reminiscence the good old days over a piping hot bowl of ramen with a pint of beer. In my books, nothing beats sinking my teeth into a melt-in-your-mouth thinly sliced piece of chashu, slurping up the hot noodles from the lip smacking fatty soup, before washing it down with a swing of beer. This of course, follows with the mandatory noodle top up to go with the remaining broth! This system of having a second helping of noodles is known as Kaedama (替玉). My personal favourite ramen is Tonkatsu ramen, with it’s creamy pale white broth. While some people may find it a little too heavy compared to Shio ramen (salt based) or Shoyu ramen (soy sauce based), a well made Tonkatsu broth, contrary to the general conception, is not extremely fatty, but broth that balances collagen, gelatin and fat.

The recipe that follows is my take on Kurume Tonkatsu Ramen which originates from Fukuoka, a Prefecture on the Kyushu island of Japan, which is known to be the original Tonkatsu Ramen and thus the most authentic.  Fukuoka is definately known as the capital of Tonkatsu Ramen in the world and here, it comes in three distinct styles, Nagahama, Kurume and Hakata. Kurume style tonkatsu is boiled longer than the other two styles and the resulting broth is so rich that it doesn’t require the addition of fat at the end. Historically, Kurume style ramen is also different as the previous day’s excess stock is added to the next day, in the same way traiditonal unagi shop’s sauce pot is never emptied.

This recipe is definitely for the love of labour as I have tried to make it as close to the original as possible. The characteristic creamy colour of the Tonkatsu broth comes from an emulsion of rendered fat, collagen and gelatin, whereby the gelatin acts as a surfactant that emulsifies the fat. This is made by vigorously boiling down pork bones for a long period of time. In addition to this, the main ingredient that sets apart the original Kurume Tonkatsu Ramen from other Tonkatsu Ramens found around the world is their use of entire pig skulls in the broth. This is because by boiling down pig skulls, the the brains and eyes are rendered down and dissolve into the broth, giving the broth a uniquely delicate sweetness to it as well as an umami boost (similar to the addition of prawn heads to shellfish stock).

28003055100_4c85fde56b_k.jpg

Before I go into the details of making the broth. We first must talk about what makes a bowl of ramen. A bowl of ramen has 4 primary components, the noodles, the tare, the broth and the toppings. All 4 of these components play an important role in making up an authentic bowl of ramen but in my opinion, the broth is by far the most important as it serves as the base flavour on which the chef is able to layer other flavours onto, like a painter on a sheet of canvas. While the broth may be the most important, let me first elaborate about the tare of a ramen, which in my opinion is the hardly ever discussed, yet alone mentioned, even when it is one of the primary components. The tare is the base seasoning added to the broth to add saltiness and complexity to the dish. It usually consists of a concentrated salty liquid that is added to the broth at around a 1:10 ratio of tare to broth. Tare can be made from concentrated dashi, soy sauce, and salt. In the case of Shio ramen, the tare used is dry and in the very best restaurants is made from several different kinds of salts to give a complex flavour compared to using plain salt.

The noodles used in Japanese ramen also originates from China and similarly, they have an alkaline element added to it. This gives them their unique taste but more importantly a different mouth feel. For example, most industrial ramen makers use kansui, or lye water, to give the noodle’s its bounce. This is in contrast to french pâtisserie, which ocassionally uses Ascorbic acid to increase the bounciness of their pastry. Ramen noodles in Japan are usually made without egg, with their yellow color comming from the kansui as well. Kurume ramen noodles are traditionally eaten with a hard centre, similiar to ‘al dente’ in Italian cooking. Because of this, a bowl of ramen should be eaten as soon as its served, in order to prevent the noodles from becoming soggy. Kurume ramen is traditionally paired with thin, straight noodles compared to the instant ramen noodles which are curly. In my opinion, the pairing of straight noodles with Kurume ramen works well as the straight noodles stick together and the soup clings more onto them.

For the topping, the classic toppings are pork chashu, marinated eggs, naruto (fish cake), bamboo shoots, chopped green onions, sesame seeds, mayu (black garlic oil), black woodear fungus, and a sheet of seaweed.

37921490192_f250d5502b_k.jpg

For this broth, I use purely pig’s trotters, skulls and water (filtered if possible). The reasoning behind this is to obtain the purest flavour of pork. The secret to making an amazing tasting Kurume Tonkatsu Ramen is the use of pig skulls in the recipe, whereby the brains and eyes melt into the broth, giving a subtle sweetness to the broth, similar to tomalley in crabs. From my experience, any addition of aromatic vegetables such as onions, garlic or ginger overpowers the soup, making it more similar to Chinese soups. For the same reason, I have also chosen not to add any chicken bones to prevent the underlying taste of chicken being added to the broth. Other than tasty, food should also be aesthetically pleasing. Tonkatsu ramen would not be Tonkatsu ramen without being an extremely pale cream colour. As mentioned above, this pale white colour is an emulsification of collagen and fat that is extracted from the bones by using a vigorous boil. This technique is very different from classic french stock which have to be as clear as possible and therefore never raised above a gentle simmer. In contrast to this, a Tonkatsu broth can not be made by simmering the pork bones as you would not get an opaque white soup due to the lack of emulsification. The vigorous boiling of the bones is akin to the vigorous whisking required to make a successful hollandaise sauce, creating a fine suspension of hydrophobic particles in water. As with most stocks and stews, extracting flavour requires a long period of boiling. This process is even longer when making this broth as the collagen in the bones requires a long period of boiling before it renders into the soup. From my experience, 20 hours is optimal, with any longer being a waste of time and any shorter causing the broth to be slightly too watery. This is especially so for Hakata Tonkatsu broth which requires a Brix scale of 10.1 or above. The Brix scale is a measurement of the sugar content of an aqueous solution, which can be measured with a Brix refractometer. Of course this is used only by the most meticulous ramen enthusiast.

Another problem typically faced when making the broth is the broth taking on a brownish tinge which gets darker over time. This occurs as the broth slowly oxidize over time. The component of the broth that is liable to oxidise is blood, and therefore as much blood as possible needs to be removed before the initial boil. Two methods are available to use to do this, the first being soaking the bones for 24 hours prior to cooking and the second one is the blanch the bones in hot water before washing the bones carefully in cold water. Since we are using pig skulls, I recommend using both technique as the skulls are full of dirt and grit (unless you are buying commercially prepared pig skulls). In fact, rather than mere blanching the pigs skulls after soaking, I recommend boiling them for up to an hour to make sure they are thoroughly cleaned. Any longer than one hour and the brain starts to melt and flow out of the skull, something that we want to prevent as we want as much of the brains to go into our broth.

27887361670_fca9e5eaa5_k.jpg

Kurume Tonkotsu Ramen 久留米ラーメン

  • Broth
    • Pork Skulls with brains in tact (preferably with the eyes too)
    • Pigs Trotters
    • Water (filtered if possible)
  • Tare
    • Katsuobushi- Dried Bonito Flakes (鰹節)
    • Kombu (dried kelp)
    • Water
    • Niboshi (Dried Sardines)
    • Mirin
    • Sake
    • Pork Lard
    • Fine Sea Salt
  1. To start the broth we must first drain all the blood from the skulls and trotters. Soak the skulls and trotters in water overnight before boiling them for half an hour.
  2. Discard the water and wash the skulls and trotters to remove all the blood which should now be brown and clumped together.
  3. Place skulls and trotters in a large stock pot, cover with water and place the lid on before bringing to a rolling boil for 20 hours.
  4. Remember to constantly refill the water if your lid is not tight-fitting and please do not leave the stove on overnight. It is not nessesary to leave the pot on a rolling boil for all the 20 hours, but the more hours the better. It is still alright to start with a rolling boil while you are able to monitor the pot every hour and to lower the pot to a simmer when you need to leave for longer periods of time.
  5. Around the 10 hour mark, it is useful to try and break open the skulls to extract the brain if the bones are soft enough. You might want to also remove the skulls from the pot and break them open a cleaver before putting them back in the pot.
  6. After 20 hours, the broth is done. Strain the stock and discard the trotters, skulls, and any remaining bone fragments. The broth can be frozen for up to 3 months.38657297742_1c36a0470a_k
  7. To make the Tare, we start with a dashi base. Dashi is basically the Japanese version of stock and is either made from Kombu which makes a type of vegetable stock, or Katsuobushi which makes a type of fish stock. Dashi is unique because it has extremely high levels of glutamate which is the compound which gives us the umami sensation. This is because when Katsuobushi is made by smoking fresh skipjack tuna fillets, the glutamate in the fish concentrates. Dried Kombu and Katsuobushi are two of the food with have the highest naturally occurring glutamate, which combined together, form an umami bomb.
  8. To start, soak the Kombu at room temperature water overnight to let it infuse slowly into the water. Do not wash the Kombu before soaking as you will wash off some of the Mannit, which is the white powder found on dried Kombu. Mannit contains a lot of glutamate which we do not want to lose.
  9. Separately, render the down the pork lard into liquid form before frying the Niboshi in it. Reserve pork lard and separate the Niboshi. The pork lard can be used as an additional topping to the ramen.
  10. Place the Kombu and the soaking liquid in a saucepan and heat until the mixture reaches 80°C (176°F). If you heat the Kombu above this temperature, the Kombu will start to release bitter compounds which will ruin the dashi. After years of making dashi, The Japanese have determined 80°C is the most optimal temperature for making dashi as it causes the most flavour extraction in the quickest time without the extration of bitter compounds.
  11. When it has reached 80°C, immediately take it off the heat and add in the Katsuoboshi and fried Niboshi and let it infuse for around 15 minutes.
  12. After that, strain the dashi to remove the solids and add in Mirin to taste. Now add in a dash of Sake and bring it back to a boil to reduce it down until concentrated.
  13. After reducing, the dashi (now tare) should be very concentrated in a ocean-like taste but not extremely salty.
  14. The final step now is to increase the salt level with sea salt, adding quite a bit of sea salt to the tare until it is almost unbearably salty. The reason why we add so much salt to the tare is because the broth has no seasoning in it and thus we want to use the tare as seasoning. However we want the fish taste from the tare to just be a complementary background taste and not full forward. In order to do so, we need an extremely salty tare that when diluted in small amounts, is enough to season the broth and add provide subtle fish notes.

 

To make a bowl of ramen, mix the tare to broth in a 1:10 ratio, before adding the toppings (such as Chashu) and noodles. Serve immediately.

38689793801_71c88088c8_o.jpg

 

Iberico Pork Japanese Style Chashu チャーシュー

チャーシュー

24101118318_fbfd9119f1_k.jpg

Before even opening the door to the kitchen, the glorious smell of melting pork fat coupled with the sweet and salty smell of simmering soy sauce is enough to make anyone salivate. This is a recipe for Japanese chashu made from Iberian pork, which is a Japanese adaptation to a barbecued pork dish that originated from China known as Char Siu. It is usually served as an accompaniment to ramen, and when done well, has the ability to take a simple bowl of ramen to a completely different level.

Traditional Chinese Char Siu cooked by barbecuing pork that has been previously marinated in hoisin sauce, honey and Chinese five spice powder. Red colouring is also sometimes added to the dish to give is a vibrant red finish that is visually appealing. In contrast to this, Japanese chashu is actually braised in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar and sake for long periods of times, to give a more tender mouth feels and less bold flavour profile. Japanese chashu can be marinated beforehand or not, with minimal effect on flavour.26487169099_588083d29b_k.jpg

Iberico Pork Japanese Style Chashu チャーシュー

  • Pork Belly
    • Iberico Pork Belly (Bellota grade)
    • Salt
    • Green Onions (Negi)
  • Braising Liquid
    • Tamari Soy Sauce
    • Ginger
    • Garlic
    • Sugar
    • Sake
    • Water
  1. First, preheat the oven to around 160 degrees celcius.
  2. After that, we need to prepare the pork belly by trimming off the excess fat as well as removing the hair from the pork skin. This step is usually already done when you buy the pork belly but if not, you can use a blowtorch to burn off the remaining hair on the skin. This is done by waving the blowtorch back and forth, just enough to burn off the hair without cooking the skin.
  3. Next, season the underside of the belly generously with salt and pepper before rolling it up into a log and tying together with string. I personally prefer not to score the skin of the belly as we will be braising it compared to roasting it.
  4. In order to maximise the flavour of the belly, heat up some oil in the pot which you are going to use to braise the belly. Make sure this pot is oven safe. Dry the skin outside of the log using paper towels before searing the log all around in the hot all. Remember to also brown both ends of the log where the meat is exposed. Once seared, remove the pork belly log from the pot and set aside for the time being.

    35131765950_5d694f9a74_k
    Violet garlic on display at the Marché d’Aligre, Paris
  5. To start the braise, cover the pot with its lid and place it inside the preheated oven.
  6. Leave the braise for around 3 hours, occasionally flipping the log so that the log spends equal amounts of time submerged inside the braising liquid.
  7. If the water level runs too low, add in more water to prevent it from burning.
  8. The chashu is done when a knife can slide through the meat with minimal resistance.
  9. If the sauce has not been reduced to your desired thickness, place the pot over the stove stop and heat without the lid to reduce the sauce until it evaporates to form quite a thick glaze. Be careful at near the end of the cooking time as this is when the chashu has a higher chance of burning.

To serve, cut thin slices of the chashu, about a few millimetres thick, and serve with rice or ramen. The tricky part of this recipe is how much water to add to the pot. The amount of water you add to the pot is actually dependent on how water/steam tight the lid for your pot is. If the lid of your put is an extremely tight fit, less water is needed as the amount of water loss from the pot during the 3 hour braising duration in the oven will be fairly minimal. If you were to add a lot of water in this scenario, you would get a very diluted sauce. If your pot’s lid is not tight-fitting or it allows a lot of water to evaporate, add more water in order to prevent the sugar in the sauce from burning after all the water has evaporated. In a perfect scenario, you would want the amount of water (and thus sauce) remaining in the pot to be just right- where the sugars in the sauce have just caramelised and the sauce to have a consistency of a dark shiny glaze.

33291752545_c728e621c6_k.jpg
University Parks, Oxford

Another way to cook this dish is actually on a stove/fire. In this case, the more traditional method here utilises an Otoshibuta, which is a Japanese drop-lid made using wood that replaces the original lid of the pot. An Otoshibuta does not fit as snugly on the pot as a typical lid. In fact, it normally has a smaller diameter than the pot, thus allowing it to sit directly on the food in the pot. The reason for using an Otoshibuta is to slow down evaporation without completely stopping it. This is perfect for this dish as you would want the chashu to simmer while also simultaneously reducing the sauce. As it is also in direct contact with the food, it prevents rigorous boiling which may break up more delicate food. To cook chashu on the stove top, instead of tying up the pork belly into a log, simply use the whole piece as it is after searing, add in the liquid and then braise. Remember to still flip the belly occasionally and be extra careful of burning. If you do not have an Otoshibuta, you can always use the original lid for the pot or use a makeshift Otoshibuta using aluminium foil or baking paper shaped into a circle with holes punctured into it. The original point of tying the pork belly into a log shape is not only for aesthetic purposes, but also to make it easier to cut, as well as preventing too much loss of moisture from the meat, as the surface area of the meat is greatly reduced.

Now lets talk about Ibérico pork and what makes it so special. Ibérico pork comes from specially bred pigs knowns as Pata Negra that are raised in the Extremadura region in south-west Spain. These pigs get their name from their black hooves. In comparison to normal everyday pork, their taste is not only superior, but even the composition of their fat is better for our health. Their meat is also extremely well marbled, while also being able to retain a delicate flavour without being overpowered by fat. The secret behind their amazing taste lies in how they are raised. During the autumn, throughout a duration known as the Montanera, the pigs are allowed to roam freely in a agroforestry system known as a Dehesa, which is an area of land that is planted with a variety of trees such as oak and cork trees. Here the finest Pate Negra pigs eat exclusively the acorns produced by the oak trees in the Dehesa. A Dehesa is extremely valuable to the farmer as it not only produces the acorns eaten by the pigs, but also serves as a source of wild mushrooms, cork for wine bottles and oak for barrels. To ensure that every pig gets enough food, a swine herder guides the pigs around the field, using a stick to knock acorns off the oak trees.

36034013010_9edfecbda5_k.jpg
Covered Market, Oxford

These acorns consumed by the pigs are rich in oleic acid, a type of unsaturated fat that is also found in olive oil. In an almost perfect example of the phrase ‘you are what you eat’, oleic acid can make up more than half of all fat found in Ibérian pigs that feed on these acorns. This not only makes Ibérico pork substantially healthier to eat, but most gives them a unique taste, making them dubbed as ‘olives with legs’ by the locals. In order to receive the protected designation of origin certification, or Denominación de Origen, the pigs not only have to been allowed to roam freely in the Dehesas, but must also have been on a diet that consist of varying amounts of acorns depending on the classification. The most prestigious classification is that of Ibérico de Bellota, whereby the pigs are fed exclusively on acorns, with the next classification being Ibérico de Cebo, where the pigs feed on a mix of acorns and feed approved by the Denominación de Origen. Of course if you can’t find Ibérico pork belly, this dish works perfectly fine with normal pork but in my opinion, nothing can beat the flavour of the real original Ibérian pig that has been allowed to roam free in the spanish Dehesas.