Whenever I get impatient or irritated over nothing, it’s usually from fatigue. In addition, I start to lose my concentration and focus, so it’s not really a good condition to be in, while caught in that infamous, Los Angeles traffic. Talk about potential road rage. I’d probably get shot with a semiautomatic for making stupid gestures or honking over some insignificant, minor incident.
When I’m in this physical and mental mode…I think PORK. Pork is said to be a very good source of vitamin B1 (thiamin or thiamine), which helps in treating fatigue and irritability. I understand that thiamin is used, by many doctors, to help improve brain function and to treat mental-health problems. Hello! Perhaps there’s a connection here, since I tend to crave pork quite often! My brain seems to automatically trigger an alarm that my GCA (Going Crazy Alert) level is extremely high and it propels me to ingest thiamin, immediately. How the human body functions, is just amazing, isn’t it? I tend to cook certain foods based on what my body is telling me at the time. It’s a deficiency indicator. At least for me, it is.
Now, I also understand that heat applied in cooking destroys this vitamin and, generally, the loss is greater in meats compared to other foods. But, since I’ve heard that pork contains almost 10 times more vitamin B1 than beef, I figure that even if I lose most of the thiamin in the cooking process, I’ll still manage to get some. I try to minimize the damage by cooking at a lower temperature, and by not overcooking the pork.
Then again, I usually soak the pork in Sake to tenderize it, which is a big NO, NO because they say alcohol, like caffeine, causes the destruction of thiamin, as well. With all the coffee and booze I consume, no wonder I’m always cranky! On top of which, the section of pork I like the most, contains less thiamin compared to other (i.e. tenderloin) cuts anyway, so I guess I just have to rely on other food sources or supplements to get my daily dosage of vitamin B1, after all. Am I making any sense? What am I talking about? Am I going crazy? Not to worry, it’s PORK time! GCA! GCA! Bleep! Bleep!
What is this section of pork I’m talking about? It’s called Butabara, in Japanese, and it literally means pork belly. No, I don’t mean the stomach or the intestines - it’s the underside of the pork with layers of meat and fat. When this guy is cured or smoked, you’ll recognize him. You know, Bacon? No, no, not Kevin, but the guy who hangs around the breakfast counter.
I like Butabara so much that whenever I go out to eat at a Kushiyaki joint, I place this order first. By the way, for those who are not familiar, Kushiyaki refers to grilled, skewered morsels of meat, seafood or vegetable (a place that specializes in chicken would serve Yakitori, which translates into grilled bird/ chicken).
For a beer drinker and a grilled-food lover like myself, it is just a heavenly experience. In any case, the reason I order Butabara first, is because I’ve had my share, of direful moments, of placing the order only to find out that they’ve run out of the pork belly skewers. This is NOT good.
I often order multiple times during the course of the meal. At this one-man-operation joint I used to frequent, where the owner/ chef cooks all kinds of Japanese foods and serves them over the counter, I’d get scolded for ordering Butabara so often. His reasoning was that, to grill Butabara you really have to pay close attention to it, making it tougher on him to juggle other tasks and orders. Since I grill my own Butabara at home, I share his frustration.
But, please, let this not discourage you in any way! If you have a hankering for a little slice of paradise, this is my version of it.
Now, let us begin our indoor, artificial grilling experience with Butabara. Please check out my previous, Grill for the Thrill posting, on indoor grilling.
Before you can start to cook Butabara, you’ll need to get one. I get my block at a Japanese grocery store. These days, I see more and more of these Butabara blocks being sold at Japanese stores around my neighborhood, perhaps reflecting its popularity. Although you will not typically see a packaged cut like this (as shown in the photo) in the meat section of your favorite supermarket, your local butcher will, most likely, be able to accommodate your needs.
I’ve also noticed pork belly slices sold at Korean grocery stores. If you can’t get a Butabara block, these slices can work just as well. Either way, we’ll stick to cooking them as is, using the same method as our Teriyaki Chicken Wings (Grill for the Thrill post).
Like some people, some pork bellies have thick skins (pork rind). I mean, literally. Nothing wrong with thick skin, but just get your jaw ready for a good workout. If you don’t like chewy stuff, remove the rind prior to eating. I’ve found that it’s easier to remove after cooking. Some places sell Butabara with the rind already removed, but if you do end up with a thick-skinned piece of pork, it’s a good idea to score (cut into with a knife) the rind prior to cooking. I score a lot of food when cooking, but I guess it’s not as easy to score at a bar.
As we did with our Teriyaki Chicken Wings, we will be utilizing the AJ2000. But wait! We now have a new and improved model called the AJ2000X. This version features a non-stick cooking pan (instead of the aluminum container), with a self-standing, crossbar cooking grate suited for small or thinly-sliced food items. I seldom see this cooking grate around, but managed to find one at a local, Japanese grocery.
The stands can be folded in and can be used as a hanging device. It’s a handy, little gadget for camping and I also use it as an accessory to my Weber grill. If you wish to continue using the original AJ2000… not a problem, it’ll work just as well.
Now, as usual, I soak the pork in Sake for 30 minutes (as always, if you want to soak it longer, keep it in the fridge - no longer than 4 hours, and take it out 30 minutes prior to cooking). The alcohol in the Sake will seep into the pork and tenderize it, as it draws in the flavor. Oh, no! I forgot that I’m probably destroying the vitamin B1! Oh, well, since Butabara is not the tenderest section of pork, like the tenderloin cut, some sacrifices must be made. Besides, I’ll eat the Butabara with brown rice tonight. Yes, brown rice is also a very good source of vitamin B1.
Since I want to enjoy my Butabara plain and simple, with only some salt and pepper, and a splash of lemon, I usually don’t add any seasoning or marinade elements during the Sake- soaking action. If you want a little more flavor, feel free to add some Shoyu (Japanese Soy Sauce) and Mirin (Sweet Cooking Wine/Sake). However, unlike a Teriyaki marinade, I’d decrease the amount of Shoyu and Mirin. For every cup of Sake, I’d add about 1/5 cup of Shoyu and Mirin, respectively. For more information on cooking with Sake, Mirin and Shoyu, please refer to the My Three Musketeers post.
I have to say, though, that to experience the true flavor of this pork, no seasoning (prior to grilling) is required. The pork fat, in itself, is really flavorful. Again, just a tiny pinch of salt and pepper, before eating, is enough for me.
To cook the Butabara, we’re basically going to follow the same procedure as the Teriyaki Chicken Wings, but we’ll be cooking it at a lower temperature (and without the Teriyaki Sauce). Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and grab yourself a beer, or whatever it is that you like to drink, because it can take anywhere from 1.5 to 2 hours, or even longer, depending on the size/ thickness of the cut and the type of oven. But…man (and woman), will it be worth it, let me tell you.
Once the oven is heated, add 1 1/2 cups of water into the AJ2000(X), and place it in the oven. We’re basically warming up the unit, getting it ready for the cooking action. When the AJ2000(X) has warmed up nicely, take the unit out (remember the oven mitts), spray some oil on the grate and load the Butabara with the fat/ skin side facing up.
If you’re using a thinly sliced Butabara cut and it can’t stand up on its own, (fat/ skin side up), just lay it on its side. Pop in that pork and make sure (for better results) that the surface of the Butabara is leveled in the middle. With my oven, this means that the oven rack is on the second-to-the-last rung, or so.
After about 5 minutes, turn down the temperature to 300 degrees. If the height/ thickness of the Butabara block measures approximately 1.5 inches, I’d leave it in the oven for 50 to 60
minutes; less if less and more if more (height/ thickness). Either
way, be sure to peek inside, every so often, and check the status.
If the surface is browning too rapidly, you may want to open the oven door for a few seconds, let the heat escape and turn down the temperature slightly. The idea is to slow cook on low heat, and let Mr. Pork Belly get his nice, dark tan. As the surface gets heated, you’ll notice the fat bubbling and oozing from the meat. Keep your eye on him and let this process continue…slowly. After 60 minutes, he should look like this photo.
He’s going to continue cooking even more when turned over, so you don’t want this first side to be anywhere near black, at this point.
Once you see the nice dark tan, turn him over and let the other side get its share of rays. He even brought his own suntan oil (Piggertone and Porkanana Boat) so if you give him the right heat temperature and enough time, he’ll be looking just fine. Just have a dialog with him, every now and then, and ask how the temperature is. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear his response. If you hear a nice, slow yet consistent sizzling sound, you know that he’s loving it!
Unless you have a cold, you’ll also notice the hearty aroma of cooked pork. For me, it’s this interaction with food that makes cooking so fun and interesting. Just don’t talk out loud during this interaction or people around you may think you’ve finally lost it. Talk about being B1-deficient! GCA! GCA! Bleep! Bleep!
After another hour or so (in the case of the 1.5-inch block, as shown in the photo), he’s ready. But, as much as I (my real, outdoor grilling persona) hate doing this, I usually turn him over just one more time, switch the oven to broil mode and toast the fat/ skin portion just a little more, to get that full crispiness.
Typically, at this juncture, you’ll find me sitting in front of the oven, with the door slightly open and eyeing the crisping action, so that Mr. Pork Belly doesn’t turn out looking like a Saturday morning, cartoon character that just got blown up by some TNT
(not the TV channel but the explosive). Does The Coyote ring a bell?
After this last, finishing touch, take the Butabara out of the oven and let it settle on a separate plate/ surface, for a few minutes (I usually do 3 to 5), at room temperature. Leave the AJ2000(X) in the oven, with the heat on. It’s said that onion and garlic help to absorb vitamin B1 (what’s left of it anyway)
into your system, so why not have some, to compliment the pork.
Chunks of raw, Maui Onion would be awesome right
now, but I’ll have to stick with what I have. So, I'll add some regular, white onion and garlic slices (or whole cloves), to the AJ2000(X) while the Butabara is settling. This is why I suggested you leave the unit in the oven. The AJ2000X comes in really handy, here. See how its cooking grate prevents the small pieces from falling off?
I ran out of white onions, so I scrounged around and found some leftover Tokyo Negi (giant green onions). The garlic...well, I always have garlic on hand. It would be a sin for me to ever run out of it. You won't find Dracula anywhere near my house, that's for sure.
Oh, and you might be interested to know that the more you crush or chop a garlic clove, the better (medicinally) it is for you. A substance, called Allicin, starts doing its magic. It's also found in onions. My understanding is that, Allicin makes it easier to absorb vitamin B1 into your system. I have to tell you...as a garlic lover, rest assured, that there will be more on this topic.
Cut off a thin slice of Butabara and try it with salt and pepper, and a splash of fresh lemon, if you like. All that attention and hard work, to cook this guy, seems to pay off after that first, succulent bite. Timing is everything, here. It’s better to take that first bite as soon as the settling action is done. Have you ever wondered why dudes hang out around the BBQ grill? After experiencing that first bite, your onion and garlic should be done. So have at it!
The Butabara can be an appetizer or can even be used as a topping for Ramen (Japanese soup noodles), which I intend to do, tonight. Umm…I’m out of brown rice. Ah…that’s right, that’s what it was, now I remember! He, he, he!
Hey, you know how much I love charcoal grilling outdoors. This indoor, artificial grilling is simply a means of survival (when you have to have that grilling experience and fat-dripping action, but can’t be outdoors), which, I must admit, does have its advantages…like more heat temperature control. The AJ2000(X) will be appearing in future posts, that’s for sure.
More importantly, I guess it’s all about the balance. Eating a little from each of the different food groups is ideal, but is often difficult to practice. I mean, I have vitamin supplements for dessert, every day.
There’s nothing fancy about these recipes (if you can call them that, which I don’t like to) but with a little patience and a willingness to try, you can enjoy tasty, Japanese-style, comfort food at home.
Vitamin B1 is not the only cure for fatigue and irritability. I don’t know…touching and cooking (playing with) food; it has a certain, soothing effect on me. I forget all about that darn L.A. traffic, I was in, a few hours ago.