Rafute: Melts in your mouth, not on your hashi

There are few things that bring home Okinawan cooking to me more thanRafute, a meltingly tender and succulent braised pork belly that my dad calls “Okinawan bacon” (he’s Filipino, mom’s from Okinawa). He calls it that because 40-odd years ago his mother-in-law — unsure what to feed the new “foreign” son-in-law living in her tiny house in Shuri — used to make it for him for breakfast. With eggs and rice, of course.Now, the uninitiated may look at pork belly and think, “I can’t eat that, it’s nothing but fat!” Aahh, but looks can be deceiving. In the case of rafute, the pork belly is first simmered for a long while in a seasoned bath of ginger, awamori or other alcohol, and water. The bath serves a dual purpose. First, to par-cook and remove the strong flavors of raw pork, thanks to the ginger and alcohol. Second, to remove a lot of the fat, which melts into the liquid and out of the pork. The pork can then be sliced and simmered again in a savory braising liquid that infuses flavor into the meat, and in the end glazes it and brings it to quivering tenderness. You think I exaggerate, but that’s only because you haven’t tried this yet.

Once fullly cooked and seasoned, rafute is a handy thing to have in the fridge to top those wonderful Okinawan soba noodles (photo bottom) you can find in Hawaii (or Okinawa, lucky you!), for yakisoba, as a side dish with tofu champuru — or yes, you can eat them for breakfast! (Uwajimaya in WA/OR carries Hawaii-made Okinawan style soba the last time we were in that area.) I also use rafute when making Abura Miso, but that’s a story for another day…

Rafute freezes well, too, if you can vacuum seal it somehow. Then you can whip up an Okinawan-style soba/ramen any time! After the pork belly is removed from the first simmering broth, chilling the broth will make it easier to discard the layer of lard that forms on the surface. (If you are more enterprising than I, you can put this pure pork lard aside for other cooking purposes, too.)

From “Okinawan Cookery and Culture” (1984), a wondertful spiral-bound collection of recipes and cultural anecdotes from members of Hawaii’s large Okinawan community, there are notes to several recipes that it’s the large proportion of alcohol that gives rafute its distinctive melting quality. I never had awamori, an Okinawan distilled spirit made from Thai-style long grain rice, to play with until we came to Oahu. Growing up, my mother used sake. Until now, I used whiskey or bourbon. But Don Quijote on Oahu carries small bottles of awamori that are cheap enough ($5 for 375ml) that we can cook with it quite liberally for now.

BTW, hashi are chopsticks.

To Par-boil:
3 lb. not too lean pork belly
2-inch length of ginger, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup (120ml) awamori or whiskey or sake

Gently bruise sliced ginger with the heel of your knife. Place pork belly and ginger in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add awamori or other alcohol, then cover meat with water by at least 1 inch. Over medium heat, bring just to a boil, then cover and immediately reduce heat to a simmer. (Don’t let the pot stay at a hard boil or the pork will “seize” and toughen the lean parts of the meat.) Simmer for 1 hour, checking occasionally to make sure water hasn’t boiled and left meat dry, and topping off with hot water to keep meat covered.

Remove pork from liquid. Chill broth and remove layer of lard on surface. When just cool enough to handle, slice pork 2-1/2 inches across and about 1/2 inch thick.

Initial Braising Liquid:
1 cup (240ml) broth from Par-cooking stage, or plain water
1 cup (240ml) awamori or sake
3/4 cup (160g) raw sugar
1 slice of ginger (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a heavy-bottomed pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, and add sliced pork. When heat returns to bubbling, reduce to barely a simmer, cover and cook for about 25 minutes.

Turn slices over, cover again and simmer another 20 minutes.

Add 1/4 cup shoyu and stir through to combine evenly with rest of braising liquid. Cook 15 minutes at the lowest simmer with no cover to allow the liquid to start evaporating. Turn slices over and continue cooking without a cover for another 15 minutes or so. Check texture, you should be able to cut through the meat, “fat,” and skin with a spoon. It should be akin to room temperature butter. If everything except the meat part is soft, it probably means the meat remained at a boil too long in the par-cooking stage and toughened — just continue on to the next step. If even the “fat” and skin give resistance, add 1/4 cup mirin-water mix, cover again and let simmer for 15-20 minutes, then check again.

Now the braising liquid is turning into a sticky glaze. Continue cooking without a cover for another 20-30 minutes, turning meat over every 5-7 minutes, depending on how quickly the glaze is forming. Before the glaze dries off completely, turn heat off, cover pan and let meat cool in glaze. Will keep in fridge for at least a week, months in the freezer if you can protect it from freezer burn.

To re-heat rafute, heat in an oiled skillet over medium heat until hot. Microwave re-heating can be tricky, and cause “burned” spots where the skin or areas near the skin turn into chicharrone (aka crackling) — a lesson learned the hard way. After spending such a long time to make these beauties, I prefer the pan for re-heating.

Our favorite way to use rafute — with Okinawan soba noodles and broth, and garnished with ginger, pre-cooked watercress, gai choy or choi sum, and way too many braised shiitake.

Ways to use Rafute: Abura Miso (Seasoned Miso Paste)