On a recent visit to a Yoshinoya “gyudon” (beef bowl) franchise, I was surprised to see my wife and daughter order pork bowls, while I ordered the shop’s signature beef bowl. Then I noticed a lot of other customers also had ordered pork bowls.
“For me, the thinly sliced pork and ginger flavor go better on a bowl of rice than the beef,” my daughter explained, matter-of-factly. She said most of her friends prefer pork bowls over beef bowls, too.
Ironically, Japan’s ubiquitous “beef bowl” shops started offering pork bowls in the early 2000s when an import-beef ban due to mad cow disease made it necessary to stay in business. The beef shortage has long since ended, but the pork bowl innovation remains a popular menu item.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. After all – from “tonkatsu” (fried pork cutlets) to “shogayaki” (ginger pork) and even pork bowls – we do love our pork in in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Pork has pretty much been our favorite meat ever since meat began gaining ground in the Japanese diet during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). In 2014, Japan consumed about 2.4 million tons of “the other white meat” – nearly double the consumption of beef (1.2 million), according to Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. (Only in recent years has chicken become a close second at 2.2 million.)
The breaded deep-fried pork cutlet known as tonkatsu is hands down the most popular pork dish in Japan. It is often served with finely shredded cabbage as is, or sliced for easy chopsticks access. We usually pour a Worcestershire sauce-based sauce on it, however, some also prefer it with soy sauce or a squeeze lemon juice.
This popular pork dish is served in a variety of ways such as “katsudon,” over a bowl of steamed rice topped with onion and scrambled egg. It is also served as “katsu-karrey,” with curry; “katsu-sando,” a sandwich with the usual sauce and mustard; and bite-size “kushi-katsu,” on a skewer.
Second only to tonkatsu in popularity is “shogayaki,” which literally means grilled ginger pork. You will find it on the menu of virtually any Japanese restaurant in the nation, just like tonkatsu. It’s also a popular home-cooked dish and a mainstay for bento lunch boxes.
We cook the dish by marinating the pork – usually thinly sliced loin or rib meat – in soy sauce-based broth with minced ginger. Then we panfrying it with garlic and other spices. Sometimes we just pour the ginger-flavored sauce directly on the fried pork. A variety prepackaged shogayaki sauces are available at any grocery store.
“Thinly sliced pork is especially appealing to our culinary sensibilities these days because it is the ideal ingredient in Japanese dishes,” says Takashi Koiso, managing director of Japan Pork Producers Association. “Its sweet lard pairs well with soy sauce-based Japanese flavors.”
Association spokeswoman Maiko Takano agrees, adding that the popular meat also goes well with another Japanese soy-based staple – miso.
“’Tonjiru’ is another popular pork dish in Japan,” she says of the pork-based miso soup with vegetables. “The lard draws out the tasty juice to blend perfectly with the soup. It makes a great side dish with any type of meal set or rice-bowl dish.”
In fact, the pork promoter is keen to assert that thinly sliced pork wins out over beef in pot dishes like “shabu-shabu” and sukiyaki. Americans may know of sukiyaki as a slightly sweet and savory beef and veggie stew. Shabu-shabu is a popular Japanese dish featuring thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled individually at the table and eaten with various dipping sauces. Turns out there’s a bit of friendly regional rivalry over which meat is best with these dishes.
Either beef or pork may be used in some parts of the northeast like Hokkaido, Aomori and on the Kanto Plain as well as on Okinawa; but only beef is used further southwest in locales like Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. My mother from Kanto’s Ibaraki Prefecture, for example, says she has never used beef for sukiyaki in her life. Most of my coworkers, on the other hand, swear by beef.
According to Takano, shabu-shabu is the best way to enjoy tender and juicy thinly sliced pork.
“Usually pork loin and rib meat are the best cuts for this dish, but the ham is also great if you like leaner meat,” she says. While typical shabu-shabu dipping sauces such as “ponzu” (soy sauce with citrus vinegar) and sesame sauce can be used, she adds that simple salt also pairs well with it.
Aside from such specialty dishes, pork is an indispensable ingredient for daily Japanese and Okinawan cuisine. Sliced, diced or ground, it’s essential for dishes like fried “gyoza” dumplings, steamed stuffed “shumai” buns, and meat and potato “nikujaga” stew.
And as my daughter so matter-of-factly taught me recently, pork is also the tastiest choice the next time you go out for a beef bowl.
When pigs fry
Uncle Sam’s helping ham
Despite Japan’s love for pork, its full-scale domestic production here is relatively recent – and owes its beginnings, in part, to the U.S. military.
Pork has been enjoyed in mainland Japan since the Meiji Restoration in 1867, but Japan’s modern pork producing industry didn’t come until after World War II, as a byproduct of military bases.
“The government encouraged rice farmers to start raising hogs as a national policy,” says Japan Pork Producers Association’s Takashi Koiso. “Pig dung makes good fertilizer for rice fields, and farmers can sell the hog after it’s fattened to earn income. It helps out the rice farmers who can harvest only once a year.”
U.S. military bases played an important role in helping to fatten up Japan’s fledgling postwar hog-raising industry, Koiso adds. Leftover scraps from U.S. military bases (and, later Japan Self-Defense Forces bases) were used for hog feed.
Farmers that were near military installations around large cities were the first to start raising hogs; eventually, it spread to different regions,” Koiso says. “Even today, you can still find piggeries near your bases on the Kanto Plain and in Aomori (Prefecture) and certain regions of Kyushu.”
Who’s pigging out
Average of annual consumption of pork per household in Japan is 42 pounds, with those in Hokkaido Prefecture eating the most (52 pounds) followed by Niigata (50) and Aomori (49). Of Japan’s 49 prefectures, Okinawa ranked 17th in pork consumption at 41 pounds per household, according to the Japanese Government in 2013. The data shows that while beef is preferred by those residing in the southwestern regions of mainland Japan, for those in the northeast, pork is the meat of choice.
Most hogs that are raised for pork in Japan are imported from Europe, America and Canada. Today, there are about 500 brands of pork nationwide, such as Kurobuta (in Kagoshima Prefecture), Kozabuta (in Kanagawa Prefecture), LYB Pork (in Shizuoka Prefecture), Akagi Pork (Gunma Prefecture) and Aguu (in Okinawa Prefecture).
Okinawa's Southern-style pork
Known as “uwaa,” pork is an indispensable to Okinawan cuisine.
Unlike mainland of Japan, Okinawa has a long history of pork. Traditional cuisine dating back to the Ryukyu Ki ngdom (1429 - 1879), consists of many pork dishes influenced by China. The same holds true for many modern-day delicacies on Japan’s southern isles.
“I think ‘rafutee’ (stewed pork belly) is one of the most popular and most authentic Okinawan dishes,” says Kyoko Hirata, of Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It is made from pork belly stewed in bonito-flavored soy sauce, ‘awamori’ (Okinawan distilled liquor) and brown sugar. It is always served for New Year’s, anniversaries and other special occasions.”
“Different from the crispy “tonsoku” (pork leg) in eaten in mainland Japan, we cut pork legs into round slices and stew them with sweet-hot broth until they get a soft, gelatin-like texture,” she says. “You’ll never see it with this particular texture in any other part of Japan except Okinawa.”
“Suchikaa,” a bacon-like salted pork rib is a common dish served as an appetizer at local “izakaya,” or taverns. While boiled pigs ear, or “mimigaa,” is prized for its crunchy texture, leanness and purported health benefits among Okinawans.
“We eat it by chopping it up into small pieces and stewing them with sweet and hot peanut sauce,” Hirata explains.
Rafutee and mimigaa can be enjoyed at most local Okinawan restaurants, such as Mikasa in Naha City, while tebichii is often offered as part of “oden,” a pot dish of fishcakes, vegetables and other foods stewed in a light soy-flavored broth, according to Hirata.
“You can enjoy it at any convenience store that has an oden section,” she says.
Native hogs extinct? In a pig's eye!
Aguu hogs are touted as Japan’s only existing native hogs. Also called “shima-buta,” or island pigs, they have inhabited Okinawa Prefecture’s Aguni Island since the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom. They are usually black and weigh only about 220 pounds, less than half of the weight of Western hogs such as Berkshire and landrace breeds.
Although there were more than 100,000 aguu hogs being bred on the island before World War II, as larger more profitable foreign breeds were introduced hog breeders stopped producing them. As a result, the number of aguu rapidly dropped to only about 30 by the 1940s, making them nearly extinct.
The Okinawan government along with prefectural museum and agricultural schools, began a campaign to preserve the native hog by promoting its meat as an Okinawan staple food. Breeders began crossbreeding aggu with Western pigs. The efforts were successful in that the pigs have so far avoided extinction.
There are around 955 purebred aguu hogs this year, according to the Okinawa Prefecture Stockbreeding Division. Officials say such purebreds are used to produce 30,000 second-generation aguu brand pork annually, which is sold in stores and restaurants.
Aguu hogs are low in cholesterol and contain three or four times as much glutamic acid as regular Western-bred hogs; this makes the meat tender and ideal pork for people who care about good health, according to the Okinawa Prefectural Government.
There hasn’t been much publicity about the taste and health benefits of aguu brand pork compared to its purebred counterpart, however.
- Hog farmers: 5,300
- Number of hogs: 9,537,000
- Main hogs raised in Japan: Landrace, Berkshire, Duroc and Yorkshire
- Consumed pork: 1,673,000 ton
- Imported pork: 816,000 ton (48 percent of whole consumption)
- Average price of pork: 318 yen per pound
- Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (2014)