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Dec 13, 2006 09:36 PM

Japanese food experts: Is it true? Can buta kakuni (Japanese braised pork belly) really be good for you? [Moved from Home Cooking]

As I'm sure a lot of other Chowhounds do, I love the taste of a well-made buta kakuni, so soft and tender and full of flavor. Though I'm one who will eat just about anything regardless of whether it's considered unhealthy or not, I've always been intrigued hearing that buta kakuni is actually good, or at least not unhealthy, for you. I've heard it said from several Japanese friends and acquaintances of mine, including some chefs. Also Tetsujin (Iron Chef) Masaharu Morimoto was claiming that as well in the TV documentary, "Morimoto: Raw".

In Tsuji's book "Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art", he calls out for a 2-day process to cook the kakuni, and a Japanese friend of mine has said that the preparation can last almost a week. Puportedly this is one of the clues to why it is considered healthy. Could this be true? What would be the reasoning behind the claims? I've heard it explained before in a very broad and sweeping manner that the long cooking times renders out much of what's bad. But exactly what is it that's being rendered out? Certainly some fat, but much still remains. Is the remaining fat somehow changed in some way?

I have searched the Internet in vain for answers to this question. But with the collective knowledge of all of the Chowhounders out there, someone here may know at least part of, if not the entire, answer...

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  1. The answer lies in the mystery that few Americans are able to grasp: portion control. You don't eat a 22oz slab of pork belly. You eat a small piece as part of a variety of dishes, pork belly providing a rich, fatty, filling role. The "French paradox" is only a paradox for a culture that is stuck on the idea that more (or as much as possible) of a good thing is always better.

    4 Replies
      1. re: kenito799

        I agree with kenito. I am a proponent of meat as a flavoring agent rather than the focus of the meal. It is just not wise or healthy.

        Never before in the history of the world (exception- Louis XIV) has copious amounts of meat been consumed in a single meal as we presently regard as normal.

        1. Too expensive
        2. Not Intelligent. Examples:
        a.) Slaughter the Cow; Cow dead; Maybe enough for two meals for village. No more cheese to feed you and village for years.
        b.) Slaughter Ox; Ox Dead; Few meals. Your plough sits idle next to the barn. No vegetables or grain next season.
        3. Religious. (Example: Role of Catholicism on Cod being near fished out presently. Alternative to meat during religious observation [Please check out Kurlansky's book - if you haven't already- cgfan])

        I am not a vegetarian -by any means- but I cannot remember the last time I sat down and ate a piece of steak. A 16 oz piece of red meat just does not appeal or 'do it' for me.
        In contrast, you can place a portion of Mabo Tofu in front of me slightly flavored with a few ounces ground pork and I could not be more happy.

        Meat should be treated like chocolate - a little bit is divine, too much and your sicker than a dog.

        1. re: kare_raisu

          One thing I would add... is not only eating lots of meat not good for you, but eating less than fully cooked meat on a regular basis is really bad.

          Having an experimental lab "rat" eating a 16ounce medium rare steak everyday... is almost akin to the Super Size Me movie!

          1. re: kare_raisu

            Oh, I think that throughout the history of the world, people have consumed enormous amounts of meat whenever they could get it. At the feasts in New Guinea when pigs are killed, people eat till they bust. Here's a photo; they eat it basically raw:
            In mid-19th century New York, they had feasts called beefsteaks... and each guest got about 4 pounds of meat, more if he could eat it. The rich were gluttons in that era.

        2. Btw - I think your posts are fantastic cgfan-- I enjoy all of them (binchotan, gurume etc). Definitive intellectual foodie fodder makes for great discussion.

          And on another note: Try searching the internet about the Meji era repeal on the Buddhist tradition of abstaining from the consumption of land animals and there was also a recent article about the rise in obesity among modern Japanese attributed to western foods.

          My college nutrition professor -upon returning from a trip to Hawaii - had a lecture regaring the rise in obesity among Hawaiian Islanders and Samoans - which was interesting. We compared their pre-american occupation diet to the present (spam, loco moco etc.).

          13 Replies
          1. re: kare_raisu

            kare_raisu: Thank you for your kind comments, and the feeling is mutual. I love the enthusiasm and the prodigiousness of your posts. You're certainly doing much to raise the profile of the S.D. CH contingent!

            My original interest for this post is quite different than the angle that's being discussed so far, but they're really both worthy of much discussion and perhaps can eventually be split-up into two different threads. I, too, believe whole-heartedly with kenito799 that portion sizes are completely out of control in the States, and also the point that you raise in your post, specifically the internationalization of certain diets far away from the lands, the lifestyles, and the peoples that traditionally consumed them, are worthy of much study.

            I'm reminded of a study that was done, perhaps as much as several decades ago, on the incidence of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease amongst ethnically Japanese people, specifically Japanese-Americans, making their living in the States compared to their counterparts in Japan, with the conclusion that the change of diet and lack of physical activity explained the rise.

            Certainly the western influences on the Japanese diet has changed things there as well, of which I recall hearing of a post-war increase in the average height amongst the Japanese due to the change in diet.

            Personally my own pet theory on the matter is that there is no such thing as a ***traditional*** diet that is inherently unhealthy. I believe that any culture of historic significance has had many generations to work out what naturally worked out the best for them. I suspect that we are all genetically pre-disposed to run best on the traditional diets of our ancestors, with the caveat that we also continue to practice a similar lifestyle. That is, what's seemingly healthy for one group is not necessarily healthy for another, and a similar argument can be made regarding what's considered unhealthy... (This is what I believe the French Paradox was all about. The appropriateness of a diet depends on how close it matches with both your ancestral diet as well as with your current lifestyle...)

            I suspect in large part the wholesale changing of lifestyles in modern societies, largely in the States but prevalent throughout the developed world, is what's at fault, combined with the belief that diets are portable from one part of the world to the next. (i.e.: Just because advances in distribution and transportation allows food stuffs to be available the world over does not erase the quality that they may not be intrinsically compatible, in a long-term sense, with the society that imports them...) e.g.: The traditional diets for those in the extreme northern lattitudes are by their very nature going to be different than for those living at more moderate lattitudes. One is not necessarily healthier than the other in an absolute sense; each were fine in the native lands where they had originally developed so long as the lifestyle remained constant.

            In any case my original line of questioning was to explore whether or not there is something to be learned healthwise from the process by which buta kakuni is prepared. It does seem to be a very long and deliberate process, and I am sure that these developments were no accident. Certainly much of it makes the pork fall-apart tender. But what about the repeated rinsing and washing? Could that have a bit to do with making it healthier? Many people with whom I've spoken to believe that there is something inherent in the cooking process of buta kakuni which makes it healthier than what it started out with, and for the longest time now I've been curious to hear what might be the mechanisms that might be at play in this process.

            What CH'ers have heard similar things regarding buta kakuni, and has it ever been (satisfactorily) explained to you?

            1. re: cgfan

              Ok Cgfan....I did a little bit of further research into this matter --perhaps more along the lines of what you are hinting at.

              I discovered one method of cooking Buta Kakuni which may differ from the preparation you have experienced/tasted but may explain a *healthier* fatty pork belly dish.

              Historical Information of Buta no Kakuni:

              One source sites the first appearance of this dish in Japan to Nagasaki, the virtual single window to the world of Japan during the seclusion era. It may have come from the Chinese servants of the Dutch who were based on a island in the harbor. This dish was orignally known as 'tonporo.'

              The Evolution of its Preparation (Japanese Adaptation):

              While the Chinese tonporo dish called for the pork flank to be first fried in hot oil and then simmered in broth, the Japanese changed the oil-frying to steaming [reason #1 - excess fat reduction rather than addition of fat].

              An Interesting Method of Cooking:

              A recipe I found calls for the pork to actually be steamed in a generous coating of daikon oroshi [reason #2 - Daikon contains digestive enzymes- protease and diastese]. In a way, a similar idea to its function as an accompaniment to tempura. A 2 or 3 hour steam would not only remove excess fat, but allow these enzymes to process/change the meat.

              Another Personal Theory:

              At the restaurant, I was introduced to the 'shimofuri' ("frost-covered") technique of blanching meat in boiling h2o prior to further cooking. This rids unfavorable odors, and excess fat. Another method is to pour boiling water over meat in a colander. Maybe a step in the healthier direction, I do not know. I havent come across a similar western technique.

              Perhaps it is worthy as well to look into the role of ginger and konbu in effecting the dish?

              So that is my pseudo-scientific angle.

              I did not see the Morimoto Documentary, do you remember the context in which he described the dish as being healthy?

              PS The wife of the owner of the restaurant I worked at has frequently tried to convince me that the semi-fermented oolong tea plays a role in 'keeping' the Chinese (with their formidable appetites and less-than-healthful cooking preparation) from obesity.

              Hope this helps.

              1. re: kare_raisu

                kare_raisu: Thanks for bringing all of this information together in one place! I recall coming across bits and pieces of this in previous searches... Some references would be great!

                I still wonder about all of the remaining fat. Is the fat somehow transformed by any of these processes?

                Re. the Morimoto documentary, it occurred as he was running through a tasting of his menu with the investors and business managers. He presented the buta kakuni as a dish that is "good for you", at which point the investor asked "how could pork belly be good for you?" Morimoto's answer was that the process removes all that is bad for the body, and added that this is what the Okinawans eat, who live to be 80, 90, and 100 years old (and longer)...

                Regarding the anectdote about the oolong tea, yes, I've heard it as well from many Japanese, including from my own mother. It must be a widely held belief in Japan that oolong tea is good to drink with Chinese food as it helps to "wash away the fat". Perhaps the tannins play a role? If so, then it must also play a part with green tea as well. But it's hard to imagine that it plays a significant role.

                As in what's said about the kakuni, though I've always taken sayings like this with a grain of salt, deep down I believe, or like to believe, that behind much ancient wisdom is some truth, if not necessarily literal truth.

                1. re: cgfan

                  Hiroko Shimbo's A Japanese Kitchen.

                  Tapas from Japan - Popular Izakaya Dishes

                  Did you catch Food Fuser's Post?

                  I am really interested in Okinawan cuisine but I do not know much other than Champuru, their incredible potato, and their incredible lifespan.

                  I recall that their dashi is a base of pork and seaweed.

                  1. re: kare_raisu

                    "I recall that their dashi is a base of pork and seaweed."

                    Wow, I din't know that... This investigation just gets more and more interesting! I love it!

                    And yes, this makes me more interested in their cuisine too. Could it be that they know something that our American South can also benefit from? The love of pork AND a healthful diet?

                    And thanks for providing the links too, kare_raisu.

                  2. re: cgfan

                    Have you read Real Food by Nina Planck? She is not a scientist, and does not address the role of exercise, but she does pull together a lot of research about diet and nutrition that I found very thought-provoking.

                    Her main point is unprocessed, traditional foods are good for you. She claims that 1) pork fat is mostly unsaturated (oleic acid) and 2) the saturated fat that is present is the kind that raises HDL. But all bets are off if you're using an ag industry antibioticized pig. Most medical research has not differentiated between sources of the food being studied. She also has a lot to say about how fermentation and other traditional cooking methods (corn in lime water) make foods much more digestible.

                    I'm still not quite sure what to think of her book, and I'd like to hear opinions from some knowledgeable sources.

                    1. re: JGrey

                      I haven't read her book, but I wonder if the author's the one that was interviewed many years ago on NPR radio. The thing that stayed in my mind from the interview I heard was the revelation that when dietary cholesterol levels were initially being measured in the labs, that the equipment used at the time were insufficient to distinguish cholesterol from other similar substances with different dietary properties. The claim was that many food items, amongst them eggs, got a "bad rap" from these early tests, giving them significantly higher cholesterol scores than what would be measured today using modern equipment.

                      Not quite sure what to think of all of this either, but perhaps what's really needed in the literature is an independent and accessible review or history of the major nutritional studies and critiques thereof, including alternate theories and critiques thereof, with a parallel history and analysis of the American diet.

                      But then again, could it be that our main problem is that we've overstudied the problem in the first place, and all we need to do is to just go back to our traditional (ancestral) diets?

                      1. re: cgfan

                        Alright... my wife has is a M.S. & an R.D; I discussed the topic with her... and here is what she has to say from a Western scientific perspective. (But we acknowledge that the scientific method is a linear method that is far from infallible, and frequently fails on complex issues where a holistic method is more appropriate... such as nutrition).

                        First... I will acknowledge what cgfan said & refine it a little bit. Back in the days researchers found that cholesterol in foods is positively correlated with heart disease (in other words the more you consume, the more likely you are to experience heart disease).

                        HOWEVER, over time Cholesterol in foods has been shown to NOT CAUSE heart disease... it is simply correlated. Basically, high consumption of saturated fats is a CAUSE of heart disease... and some foods that are high in saturated fat also happen to be high in cholesterol (hence the correlation). We now understand that the body makes the vast majority of the cholestorol in our blood stream... the cholesterol we consume is overwhelmingly excreted via the intestinal tract.... i.e., we crap it out.

                        Just a decade ago... the Western establishment had us avoiding things like Shrimp & other Shellfish... based on Cholesterol... BUT these are foods with extremely low saturated fats, and addition provide all kinds of health benefits... and would be foolish to eliminate. Unfortunately, the earlier PR campaigns against Cholesterol have confused people & caused the damage... but no one really has the budget or the desire to counter the PR damage (although the Egg Industry has tried... but been very tame with their approach).

                        Now... on to Pork Belly. All Fat.. including those in Pork Bellies are hydrophobic lips (they don't mix in water). From the methods described it doesn't appear that any could possibly dissolve or wash away any of the fat. It just doesn't seem possible from a Chemical perspective.

                        Now... addressing the issue of Okinawa & the consumption of pork belly. Okinawa is known around the world for its lengthy life span. In a study of people in places with abnormally long life spans... there are several things in common:

                        > Active lifestyles
                        > Lower stress levels
                        > High consumption of Super Foods

                        Each place had its own Super Foods to credit... and in Okinawa we find two important traditions:

                        > Sweet Potatoes are the staple starch not Rice
                        > Seaweed is consumed in prodigous amounts

                        Because of all these factors, Okinawans can afford to indulge in some pork belly and even cheesecake if they had any desire for it.

                        Another study of Polynesian peoples whose staple meat is the much denounced Pig, found that people had slightly lower heart disease rates than Americans DESPITE consume much more Saturated Fat, Cholesterol & simple starches than Americans... AND despite having even greater rates of obesity. What was interesting is that Polynesians that were 30 or so pounds overweight... had virtually no risk of heart disease while Americans 30 pounds overweight did. There were two surprising conclusions:

                        1) Pork has an Amino Acid that seems to boost HDL (Good Cholesterol) which is heart healthy.
                        2) Stress levels seem to play a bigger factor than food.

                        Finally, earlier I mentioned that Saturated Fat not Cholesterol was shown to be a Cause of Heart Disease. We now know that is not entirely correct. As the American Dietary Association & the scientif establishments open themselves to a more holistic approach they are finding that it is not so much the foods you consume... its the foods you DON'T consume.

                        At the granular level it seems that foods high in soluble fiber & antioxidant help keep blood lipid levels (cholesterol) in optimal balance (high levels of hdl.. low levels of ldl)

                        The short answer is that it doesn't seem chemically possible for pork belly to be good for you, but under the right circumstances it certainly isn't bad for you.

                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                          Thanks for all the scientific info...very interesting. Keeping the focus on science for a minute, here is a link to a blog written by a science teacher in Seattle that discussed Planck's book. I think he explains the problem with fuzzy non-scientific "sciency" logic that most people can't distinguish from the scientific method, like Ms Planck.

                          A key distinction mentioned by Eat Nopal is correlation vs. causality; many studies can detect correlations but determining causality requires much more difficult prospective studies (actual experiments). Dietary recommendations can't really claim to be based on scientific evidence unless the prospective studies have been done and one study is usually not enough; furthermore every study has limitations and the actual methods used must be carefully scrutinized before drawing conclusions. For this reason, announcements in the news about the results of the latest study should almost never be seen as "conclusive" of anything.

                          Note that the author (and I) do not disagree with the idea that eating natural foods is better and healthier; just that her book's claims of evidence to back up this reasonable assertion don't hold water.

                          1. re: kenito799

                            Interesting blog... I posted the following question for her:

                            Great points on the pseudo-science of Nina Planck, and without a doubt we have many comforts, medical & technological improvements for which we must thank the scientific method. However, I would like to ask your thoughts on Common Sense & Holistic Approaches.

                            My wife is an M.S. in Nutrition and an R.D... and I have read more studies in the Jouranal of American Dietary Association than I can number - it is quite evident that the scientific establishments gets caught up in these linear experiements that tend to just explain one tiny piece of a huge puzzle, and often ignore the interrelationships between the pieces.

                            I have full confidence that someday, many centuries from now, the scientists will have a decent understanding of the relationship between food & health, but giving how many times they have been wrong aboout things like Vioxx & even Tylenol and countless other topics, it would be foolish to make decision solely based on what the scientific community has established.

                            To me, common sense says that since Homo Sapiens have existed for about 130,000 years... and in that time we have spent more than 92% of our existence as hunter gatherers... that evolution has created our bodies to flourish as hunter gatherers.

                            So just taking a common sense approach to risk management would say that we are best off eating like hunter gatherers as much as adjusting for our post-industrial lifestyles.

                            So yes it may be true that sugars & refined carbs aren't necessarily poision for us... but pragmatically we should minimize their consumption.

                            Thank you in advance for your response.

                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                              that blogger is male, BTW...

                              I pretty much agree, the fault with Planck's book is the cherry-picking cof research findings and the claims that her thoughts have scientific evidence behind them.

                              This whole experiment with industrial civilization is just a small blip in the several million year history of our species, and might prove to be a temporary aberration that will correct itself when the planet can't support the constant destructive onslaught of 6 billion humans, 2 billion of whom are busy churning out greenhouse gases.

                          2. re: Eat_Nopal

                            Ah, Eat Nopal! You answered the question I've always had, about whether the pros and cons of various foods are by virtue of addition or subtraction. In other words, I've always wondered whether the main benefit of eating oatmeal for breakfast is that you're *not* eating bacon and eggs for breakfast. Every time you choose to eat something you are choosing not to eat something else (since the amount of food you can consume is finite). Thus, it's really hard to determine whether the health effects of your diet are caused by what you ate or what you didn't eat.

                            I implemented some vigorous portion control a couple of months ago and I was (1) shocked by how big "single serving" portions are, and (2) surprised that after a couple of weeks, a more reasonable portion size started to seem perfectly adequate.

                    2. re: kare_raisu

                      Kare Raisu
                      I've learned a lot from reading your posts and I've been trying to recreate this dish:
                      How would you use Kombu in this recipe? I added it to the blanching water.
                      Is there merit in letting the pork marinate while covered in raw daikon overnight before putting it in the steamer?
                      Either way, I came out with tough stringy meat, and while the fatty part is delicious as well as the skin, it doesn't have the spongy, delicate texture as described by other contributors.
                      I can't see this as being healthy, unless it's richness prevents you from eating too much.

                2. I think you are dead-on on the role of ancestral diet. The Inuits almost exclusive seal, etc meat diet blows my initial portion-of-meat theory out of the water.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: kare_raisu

                    Two flaws with the ancestral diet theory. If, in prehistoric days, people ate a diet that would kill them by age forty, it didn't matter because (1)they would already be dead. Life back then may not have been, as Hobbes thought, nasty and brutish, but it was short. (2) In evolutionary terms, it didn't matter. They would already have had children, so they were expendable.

                    1. re: Brian S

                      Can you explain the high rates of lactose-intolerance in Asians or Africans who did not historically produce dairy?

                      1. re: Brian S

                        Note: 2 cents worth of my rambling to follow...

                        Brian_S: But isn't it interesting that as human lifespans extend well beyond their reproductive age, the very development of the societies that made these extended lifespans possible also creates the need for the longer lifespans in the first place? This is in order for parents to be able to raise and educate their children much longer than needed in earlier times such that they can "survive" in our advanced society.

                        Yes, long ago one pretty much needed to survive just far enough past a reproductive age in order to raise their children to develop their basic survival skills. But in such an environment much culture cannot develop. It takes many advances and constant tweaking, working out food production techniques and a compatible diet being amongst them, [and not transporting water in lead-lined acqueducts helps :-) ], that will allow for a long-enough lifespan and hence free time to develop a culture, which by it's own existence places requirements on lifespan in order for the knowledge to be passed down to the next generation.

                        So while the evolutionary test for a compatible diet may have been superceded in ancient times by very short lifespans, thereby making unnecessary finding their ideal diet, once man "bootstrapped" his way into developing a culture, he would have had to figure out a diet that guaranteed the much longer lifespans that this enterprise required, lest society allow itself to devolve back to living the nasty and brutish lives of our cave-dwelling ancestors...

                    2. cgfan, perhaps "it's healthier" because the cooking process gets rid of some of the nitrites used to cure the pork. Also maybe because the simmering renders most of the fat?

                      1. this thread reminds me of something crazy my mother tells me when we are eating sam gyup sal - korean grilled pork belly.

                        "this is the only kind of fat you can eat, its very healthy for you"

                        maybe she was right after all? either way Im going to eat it, its delicious when grilled

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: bitsubeats

                          bitsubeats: Is sam gyup sal readily available in a restaurant environment, or is it more a "homestyle" dish? If so, at what type of Korean restaurant would I be able to find some? If not, might it be available via the meat case at a Korean market?

                          1. re: cgfan

                            Sam Gyup Sal is just BBQ sliced pork belly. You can usually find it at any Korean BBQ. It's usually unmarinated and grilled at the table like kalbi or bulgogi so it's nothing that you can't do at home.

                            1. re: Humbucker

                              Humbucker: Thanks for the information... I'll look out for it at my next trip to a Korean BBQ.

                              I also understand from the little internet searching that I've done on this dish is that it's Koren for 3 layered pork, and that it contains a layer of meat, a layer of fat, and a layer of skin. Sounds like it could be dangerously delicious... (Food Police: stand back and leave this one alone! :-) )