Going the whole hog
The Japanese love pork above all other meats and prepare a wide array of dishes with it, says Rahul Verma
What’s the dish that comes to your mind the moment you think of Japanese cuisine? Sushi, most likely. The nori wrapped rolls are to Japan what, say, tiramisu is to Italy, or paella to Spain. But there is a world beyond sushi and sashimi in Japan. And occupying a prime spot there is pork.
I must admit that I hadn’t given this much thought till I learnt, some weeks ago, that more pork is eaten in Japan than chicken and beef put together. I also had quite a delicious meal that focused largely on pork at Sakura in Delhi recently.And as I dug into my yakisoba — a bowl of ramen noodles pan-sautéed with pork and assorted vegetables — I realised the important role that the meat plays in Japanese food.
“The most popular type of meat by far in Japan is pork,” says master chef Tetsu Akahira, Sakura, The Metropolitan Hotel & Spa. Pork is cooked in various ways, but the most common dishes are pork in curry with rice and cutlets, he adds.
Tonkatsu — a deep fried breaded pork cutlet eaten and served in different forms — wears the crown. There are special tonkatsu restaurants serving just this much loved dish. “There are also live stations of pork cutlets in Japan,” adds the chef, who does a tonkatsu tantanmen — noodles cooked in a pork and soya bean paste stock, served with a boiled egg
and topped with a spicy ground pork meat sauce.
Pork has had its ups and downs in Japan. There was a time when the Japanese ate various kinds of meats. After the arrival of Buddhism, eating of meats was frowned upon, points out Makiko Itoh, the author of The Just Bento Cookbook, in an article. But there were some who loved pig meat. She writes that the warlords of Satsuma called pigs “walking vegetables”. Herds accompanied troops who, it was thought, gained their strength from eating pig meat.
Okinawa was always known for its pork dishes. The islands were once independent and had robust trade links with China and other countries in the East. Trade and travel, naturally, had an impact on the food. From China, for instance, came a dish of pork belly simmered in soy sauce and glazed with brown sugar. And this may be trivia, but I love it — according to one account, Chinese officials ate 5,000 pigs in 250 days during a visit in 1713.
Now, of course, you get pork in various forms — chops are cooked in teppanyaki or a hot griddle, or ribs are grilled on hibachi and served with barbecue sauce — points out my guitar-playing chef friend Vadim Shin, who specialises in Japanese cuisine. “Pork also figures prominently in modern Japanese fusion,” says the speciality chef at Zen, The Leela Palace Bengaluru.
His favourite is donburi, a rice bowl dish, while chef Vaibhav Bhargav of Sheraton New Delhi Hotel loves buta shogayaki — grilled pork belly flavoured with ginger. I can understand why, for the mildly sweet flavour of ginger gives a new dimension to the dish.
A good cut can lead to a nice pork steak with just the right sauces. Chef Akahira grills steaks, and he tops his butaten okonomiyaki — a grilled dish mostly prepared with a tempura flour batter (and often compared with pizzas and omelettes) — with double-fried pork.
There was a time, in the 17th century, when the meat was sold as medicine because it was thought it added to one’s strength and stamina. I don’t know about that, but just for the taste I’d sign up for a daily dose.
Photographs by Jagan Negi;
Location: The Metropolitan Hotel & Spa, Delhi