Pork belly is widely used in many cuisines. Pork belly with crispy crackling, thinly sliced and cured as bacon, cooked on a Korean tabletop barbecue, or enjoyed in a sandwich with sauerkraut, roasted or smoked — people worldwide have enjoyed it for centuries.
My father, a practitioner of Chinese medicine and a tea grower, has always loved his pork belly in the cold months. He once told me that pork belly, in fact, holds medicinal properties according to TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) principles.
When consumed moderately, it nourishes the kidneys, yin, and general dryness one experiences in their bodies during winter. He called it an “internal moisturiser”. Western nutritional science suggests that the fat in pork belly can help boost good cholesterol in the body, and promotes better absorption of high-quality proteins and amino acids.
I find it incredible how, if we listen to our bodies, they will tell us what we need through our cravings, and these ingredients are often found within our reach, because our immediate environments inform us of our constitution, and our natural environment gives us the appropriate foods to help counter environmental affects on our overall health — there’s wisdom in locally sourced and seasonal ingredients.
I lived in Cape Town for over two decades before relocating to Johannesburg. I never craved pork belly before my relocation. The cold months in Joburg are more brutal than anything I’ve ever experienced: dry skin, dry throat, dry eyes, dry coughs, along with a small-dose mental dip.
Our bodies naturally navigate towards warming foods; Indian cuisine is wealthy in the knowledge of spices that are warming when used intentionally. Our ancestors were so well versed in self-care habits and how to maximise an ingredient’s usefulness to balance and heal our organs. We need to tap into this knowledge more consistently in our modern living.
Another similarity between Asian food and the cuisines of certain regions of SA is the love for not only pork belly but also trotters, or the various creative ways of using animal fats, whether to ingest to “moisturise” our bodies from the inside out, or apply topically to insulate us from the harshness of winter.
This agreement has led to an effortless fusion of cuisines. The Sino-Japanese trade routes in the 1100s further facilitated this collaboration, and Japanese-Chinese fusion cuisine was born. This braised pork belly is the Japanese version — traditionally called Buta No Kakuni, meaning “square simmered pork belly” — cooked in soy, sake, and mirin, slow braised for two hours. Slow cooking allows the fat to break down into a gelatinous, melt-in-your-mouth texture. All good things takes time, though it’s a very simple recipe; eight ingredients and easy preparation steps.
RECIPE: JAPANESE BRAISED PORK BELLY
700g of boneless pork belly, cut into thumb-sized cubes
Ginger, 2 thick slices
Spring onion, 1 stalk, cut into 5cm pieces
2 cups of water
½ cup sake
⅓ cup soy sauce
⅓ cup mirin
¼ cup sugar
1. Brush two teaspoons of oil in a frying pan
2. Sear the pork belly for four minutes. Make sure to turn it to sear all sides. Remove and set aside.
3. In a medium-sized pot, add enough water so the pork belly is submerged. Add ginger, spring onion and bring to boil then lower heat and let simmer for two hours.
4. Drain the pork, then add two cups of water, mirin, soy, sake and sugar. Bring to boil then lower heat and let simmer until most of the sauce has disappeared.
Kitchen note: Japanese chefs would suggest using a “drop lid”, which is essentially a lid that can directly cover the food, to limit air circulation during cooking. I used a lid from a smaller pot and placed a small bowl on top, but you can also cut out a piece of foil to place on the pork belly and place a small plate above the foil.