Food obsessions can come out nowhere. This one, which has taken over my recipe experiments for the past couple of weeks, came from my longtime online friend, santos of The Scent of Green Bananas . She tweeted one day a few weeks ago something about makiing rillettes from Chinese braised pork belly and for some reason that just caught hold of my imagination.
Rillettes, incidentally, is a French dish. It’s a soft, spreadable paté consisting of shredded meat and fat. The most famouse kind of rillettes is the rillettes de porc, a speciality of the Loire region of France. The idea of an Asian flavored rillettes struck a chord with me. Instead of a Chinese recipe though, I wanted to try it with rafute.
Rafute (pronounced ra-foo-teh-) is a dish that comes from Okinawa, the southernmost part of Japan. Okinawan cuisine is famous for its healthiness, and the residents have the longest life expectancy in the world . That does not mean that they are all raw food enthusiasts or vegans. As a matter of fact, the main meat of Okinawan cuisine is pork, and rafute, a slow cooked pork belly dish, is the most famous one.
Rafute is extremely easy to make, with just a few precautions. It does take time though - at least 4 hours, if not more. Your personal intervention in the process of transforming pork belly to melting, tender pork morsels is minimal.
Here, by the way, is a hunk of pork belly. Don’t be afraid, it’s what bacon is made of.
Like all pork belly recipes, rafute is very, very rich. Typically someone has maybe 2 or 3 cubes of it at most at a meal, with rice and vegetables and such. Rafute is great with rice (or noodles) as long as it’s hot, so that the fat layers can melt into the starch, making a gorgeous sauce. Cold rafute, on the hand, is kind of overwhelming. I have never been fond of large chunks of cold fat.
Therefore, rafute rillettes makes a whole lot of sense. The fat gets nicely dispersed with the shredded meat, forming a gorgeous spread for bread or crackers, a paste to turn into sauce, and so on.
What I did find is that classic rafute is actually a bit too sweet when it’s cold. So, for the version that I intended to turn into rillettes (which is served cold) I cut down on the sugar and added a bit of bitterness, in the form of black tea, and a spicy undertone from double the ginger and a chili pepper. I’ve given a classic rafute recipe too, for reference. Both versions are great served with a steaming bowl of plain rice. (See also: Buta no kakuni , braised Japanese pork bely.)
Ingredient note: The most complicated part of this dish may be procuring awamori, the Okinawan sake-like beverage. Awamori is stronger than sake, but sake is an acceptable substitute. You can also try Chinese shaoxing wine, sherry, or - perhaps the closest of all - Thai sato or lao hai. The alcohol is critical for this recipe, so please don’t ask about non-alcoholic substitutes. (Note that the long simmering gets rid of all but less than 1% of the alcohol content.)
Step 1: Parboiling the pork. If your belly piece came with the skin still attached, inspect it for any hairy bits or such, and trim those off. Put the pork belly in a pot, add enough water to come up to about 2 cm / 1 inch above the pork, and add 1/2 cup of awamori or sake. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to a slow simmer, and cook for an hour.
Take the pork out and let cool. You may wash any excess fat and scum off the surface if you wish. Throw away the parboiling water (it will be very fatty, so beware of it causing any plumbing issues in your drain). Let the pork belly cool, then cut off the skin and some of the outer fat, and cut into cubes. Wash out your pot.
Step 2: Simmering the pork. Return the washed out pot to the stovetop, and add the rest of the awamori or sake, ginger, and dashi, including the cubed pork. If the liquid does not cover the meat, add more dashi or plain water. Bring up to a boil then lower the heat to a simmer. Add the sugar. Put a piece of kitchen parchment paper or aluminum foil with a couple of holes punched in it on top of the cooking liquid, to ensure even cooking. (Or use your otoshibuta (drop lid) if you have one.) Simmer for an hour.
Add the soy sauce, and simmer for another hour or more (I start checking for tenderness after an hour), until the pork is so tender you can cut it with a pair of chopsticks. Let cool in the cooking liquid. Serve with a bit of the cooking liquid drizzled over.
If freezing, freeze in a little of the cooking liquid. It keeps in the refrigerator for a few days, in the freezer for a month.
The procedure is the same as for Classic Rafute. Put the tea bag in for about 2 minutes at the start of the simmering process, then take it out. The chili peppers are added along with the ginger into the simmer liquid.
The lower sugar rafute works better for this, although either version can be used. Simply shred up the pork as fine as you can with a fork and your hands. Don’t use a food processor, since you want shredded meat, not finely chopped meat goo. Mix the shredded up meat well with the fat and a few spoonfuls of the cooking liquid. Use as a sandwich spread and so on. A little of this goes a very long way. (Bento? Stay tuned…) It keeps in the refrigerator for a few days, in the freezer for a month.
(Edit: See how the rillettes are used in a deconstructed bánh mi  bento!)