Each dish exists in its own continuum, but they become interconnected through our personal experience. You eat a meal that blows your mind. This dish is making its way into your life. One year you go heavier on the garlic. The next, a little lighter on the Arctic char. Or maybe you prefer more chili, more lime, more spiciness, until a meal’s story merges with your own.
About eight years ago, I found myself lost in Tokyo Station. It was only my second time in Japan. I had come from Houston to see friends. We had planned to crush the tsukemen in a place tucked away in the basement of the terminal, before cartwheeling to the queer bars of Shinjuku Ni-chome – but of course I took a wrong turn. And that first mistake led to a second. Eventually, I found myself battered in the bowels of one of the busiest transit centers in the country. Before falling into a real anxiety attack, I ducked out 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 small saucer of grated daikon, a Sapporo, and a shiny platter of sauce-laden kakuni.
The bar was tiny. And sterile. A matron stood next to a bartender. They served a pair of employees 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, and why I was in their country and how the hell had I been so lost?
The first man worked for Toyota. The other guy did something with cameras. I was a professional idiot who managed to ruin a party. But maybe, asked the first guy, a beer and a bite might make things better? So, after a moment of consternation, I asked the matron what he had, and was handed a small saucer of grated daikon, a Sapporo, and a shiny platter of sauce-laden kakuni.
Kakuni translates to “simmered 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 extremely simple: after lightly frying your pork to color it, you simmer the meat until it’s soft to the touch, which renders most of the fat. This allows the base set to infuse your meal with silky, melt-in-your-mouth flavor. Despite all its simplicity, the dish is extremely comforting. You’re just as likely to find it chalked on a bar’s menu board as in the nightly rotation of someone’s house.
But the origins of kakuni are actually Chinese. The dish most likely originated from dongpo pork: a Chinese braised pork belly dish said to have been created in 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. fat. As the generations passed and the Chinese presence on the island of Kyushu took root more deeply, the Japanese-Chinese dishes – chuka ryori – began to emerge. Gyoza, ramen, and ebi chili have risen to prominence as distinct and singular entities. As Namiko Hirasawa Chen of Japanese cuisine website Just One Cookbook notes, “Japanese people are wholeheartedly embracing this localized Chinese cuisine, so much so that the number of Chinese restaurants in the country is second only to Japanese restaurants.” And 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.
Before my first bites of kakuni, my interactions with pork belly were infrequent and sporadic: it wasn’t usually my cut of choice. As a kid, I didn’t eat a lot of bacon. I hadn’t fallen in love with Korean BBQ yet. Of the Jamaican pork dishes I grew up with, thicker cuts were generally used. And it was the same with the many banh mi I’d gobbled up across Houston, and the backyard barbecues I’d been privy to in Texas: great care was taken to avoid the fat from the pig. . I didn’t know what I was missing.
So I took a bite. And then another. Each chew felt like strumming a whole new set of chords: velvety and comforting, heightened by its frankness. Then it was gone.
It’s amazing how the kitchens end up stitched together. Whether this ko, lu rou fan, tau eu bah or endless variations on stewed pork belly, similar ideas of comfort live within the plastic boundaries between us. They share the assurance of simplicity. The toughness of knowing what lies on the other side of time well spent. Lately, I’ve been cooking kakuni at home in a donabe, in portions that I’ll distribute for the week; at a time that has been hugely disconcerting even for the most privileged among us, they have served as their own little comforts. An overcrowded bar on a sweltering evening. If we’re lucky, that’s what some of our favorite dishes can do: add us to the pantheon of history, connect a meal across cuisines, across countries, across lives.
But that night, I thought of none of that. I didn’t care either. I was lost. Lost! So I ordered more kakuni. And also another beer.
A new friend of mine told me he loved San Antonio. The other asked me if I was interested in photography. I texted my buddies that I’d catch them later, and the rain outside only got harder. More people entered the bar. The room became lively. Far from home, I had found a home. The dumbest stroke of luck, but blessed nonetheless.
Recipe: Kakuni (braised pork belly)