Japanese Kitchen: Secret to Japan's delicious pork dishes

Japanese Kitchen: Secret to Japan's delicious pork dishes

Live Japan

When speaking of Japanese food, many foreign visitors will think of dishes that make use of high-end beef, such as Kobe beef. But recently, pork tonkatsu, or fried pork cutlet, and pork shabu-shabu, also called “ton shabu,” as well as other pork dishes such as stir-fried pork with ginger, are popular as well.

Amongst the Japanese pork varieties that are growing in popularity recently, you may be aware of the rich-tasting “meigara-ton” and “brand-ton”, which means “branded pork”, which are high-class varieties of pork.

The quality and place of production vary between pork varieties. Among the different pork varieties with their unique characteristics, there are many who would be happy to receive it as a gift.

Here, we will be explaining how the names of each variety came about, and introducing the types of branded pork and their place of production, including such varieties as the highly-coveted Agu pork, and the most exported variety from Japan, Waton Mochibuta.

Grades and varieties of pork

Most pork on the market in Japan is divided into four ranks, very high, high, medium, and normal.

The way to grade the pork is based on the composition of the meat (called the “butaeniku”, the pork carcass is split cleanly into two after removal of the blood vessels, skin, head, and organs), and regardless of the variety, age, and gender of the pig, the thickness of the fat, appearance, and quality of the meat are all factors considered when grading the meat.

Chart showing how the meat is graded bases on size and thickness of fat

Image based on information provided by Japan Meat Grading Association

Image based on information provided by Japan Meat Grading Association

*If the amount of fat is too little or too much, it will be graded as “normal”, because if compared to the muscle, the amount of fat is too much or too little, the balance between the muscle and fat cannot be said to be good.

Names of the cuts of pork in Japanese and their characteristics

Illustration by honokaki design

Let’s go through the names of each cut of pork in order, according to the picture above. When ordering food or buying ingredients for cooking, please use it as a hint.

1. Kata (shoulder)
The area from the shoulders to the back. The muscles fibers are quite thick, and there’s quite a lot of slightly tough muscle, and as there is both a lot of fat and tendon, it’s usually used in “tonjiru”, which is miso soup that includes pork and vegetables boiled in it, curry, and other boiled and stewed dishes.

2. Kata rosu (Boston butt)
The area from the neck to the back. Muscle and fat are roughly mixed here, and there is a thick taste of pork and umami. When sliced thinly, it’s used in pork and ginger stir fry, and when sliced thickly, it’s used in tonkatsu, or fried pork cutlet, yakibuta, pork seasoned with sweet soy sauce and broiled, and thinly sliced pieces are a well-known topping on ramen, amongst many other preparation methods.

3. Rosu (Loin)
The area from the back of the shoulders, to the center of the back near the waist. The muscle fibers are thin with an appropriate amount of fat mixed in, making it a soft area, and it is used in dishes that bring out the umami of the fat. When sliced thinly, it is used in stir-fried pork with ginger, when sliced thickly, it’s used with pork saute, and when sliced into cubes, it’s used in vinegared pork, a Chinese dish where the pork is fried and served with a topping of white vinegar.

4. Momo (Thigh)
The area around the backside. The muscle fibers are slightly thicker, and it is mostly muscle with little fat, and when cut into blocks, is used as roast pork and boneless ham, and when sliced thinly, is used in stir-fry. 

5. Bara (belly)
The area around the torso, including the ribs, and when the bones are attached, it’s called spare ribs. With layers of muscle and fat, it is soft, and when cut into squares, is used in kakuni, a dish of stewed pork with soy sauce and sugar, and yude-buta, where the meat is boiled, then cooled and sliced thinly, while served with sauce. Thick slices are used in yakiniku, such as on hot plates or grilled and served as a side dish with tare sauce, or in okonomiyaki, a type of savory pancake.

6. Hire (tenderloin)
Located on the inner side of the loin, one pig only has about one kilogram of tenderloin, and it’s a rare cut. With little fat, it’s healthy and soft, and is frequently used in dishes that use oil, such as “hirekatsu”, or tenderloin cutlet, as well as piccata.

What are Japan’s branded pork varieties?

Branded pork comes from pigs of a specific breed, with special management of the feed and environment the pigs are raised in, and are different from regular pigs.

Like Iberico pork from Spain, there are strict qualifications to clear for branded pork, and currently, there are over 400 varieties of such pigs in Japan. (Information based on the “Meigara Butaniku Handbook 2020” by the Shokuniku Tsushin Sha company)

Though there isn’t a clear line between “meigara-ton” and “brand-ton”, meigara-ton pork varieties which become famous enough to become their own brand are often called “brand-ton”.

Depending on the variety, there can be both meigara-ton and brand-ton. Brand-ton isn’t so much the variety of the pork, but a guarantee of the production standards of the pork, which follow strict rules governing the feed, water, and raising period, and guarantees high quality and yield of pork.

10 Japanese pork brands you absolutely have to try!

From here, out of the numerous pork brands in Japan, we’ve handpicked several varieties that you should try when in Japan, as well as recommended dishes.

1. Okinawa Agu

Rafute *picture is a representation

  • Standard: Originating from “Shima-ton”, a type of small pig that is raised in Okinawa, it is a rare and highly prized pig. After being raised on regular feed for 240 days, they are raised on a special feed that is used specifically for Agu-ton only.
  • Region of production: Okinawa Prefecture
  • Meat quality and characteristics: Due to its marbling, the meat is both sweet and savory, and has a lower melting point than regular pork, so the fat melts once it enters your mouth.
  • Recommended dishes: Rafute (stewed blocks), etc.

Rafute is a local delicacy of Okinawa, where blocks of pork belly are stewed or simmered with dashi stock, Awamori (a type of shōchū from Okinawa), sugar, and soy sauce. You can taste the rich flavor of the meat, and with its melt-in-your-mouth texture, it’s a top-class dish.

2. Kagoshima Kurobuta

Shabu-shabu *picture is a representation

  • Standard: All are Berkshire pigs (excluding American Berkshire), and the standard is for the pigs to be raised separately from other Berkshire pigs. From 230 to 270 days of age to up to 60 days before being sent for production, it has to be fed on a diet of 10 to 20% amasho, a type of sweet potato.
  • Region of production: Kagoshima Prefecture
  • Meat quality and characteristics: Soft with a good balance of springiness, its special characteristic is its exquisite taste and sweet fat.
  • Recommended dishes: Shabu-shabu, etc.

Shabu-shabu is a dish where thin slices of pork meat are cooked instantaneously in a pot of dashi stock. Once the meat is cooked, it is immediately removed from the soup, and eaten together with tare sauce served in a small side dish. A dish that brings out the umami and sweetness of the meat.

3. Kurao Pork (*Also called Baumkuchen-ton)

Shabu-shabu *picture is a representation

  • Standard: The pigs are fed exclusively on a food mix produced by the Kurao Pork company (the feed includes ground Baumkuchen cake mixed in, a dish that is famous locally), and the amount of feed eaten by each pig is checked and adjusted individually. From 210 to 240 days, the pigs drink negative ion water.
  • Region of production: Shiga Prefecture
  • Meat quality and characteristics: With tight and firm meat, the melting point of the fat is high, with a refreshing taste. There is a large amount of amino acids, which contain much of the umami, and has a flavor with complexity.
  • Recommended dishes: Shabu-shabu, etc.

4. Buono Pork Gifu

Yakiniku *picture is a representation

  • Standard: A cross with a variety of Duloc pigs (Buono Brown) with a high ability to produce marbled meat. About 180 days after birth, the loin must have double the amount of marbling as regular pork to gain certification.
  • Region of production: Gifu Prefecture
  • Meat quality and characteristics: The umami of the meat and sweetness of the fat are characteristically strong, so do enjoy these two aspects of the pork.
  • Recommended dishes: Yakiniku, pork saute, etc.

5. Tokyo X

ポークソテー ※写真はイメージです

  • Standard: Following improved standards to raising livestock, in 1997, this breed was registered with the Japan Pork Producers Association as a new breed of genetically modified pig. From 210 days of age, the pigs are raised with four main goals in mind: safety, biotics, animal welfare, and quality.
  • Region of production: Tokyo, Ibaraki, Miyagi, Yamanashi, and Gunma prefectures
  • Meat quality and characteristics: Thin muscle fibers with threads of pork going through, it has a characteristic juiciness with a juicy texture. It doesn’t have a thick, lingering after taste.
  • Recommended dishes: Pork saute, etc.

6. Waton Mochibuta

Tonkatsu *picture is a representation

  • Standard: The lineage and upbringing of the pigs are strictly controlled, down to choosing the grandparents and parents of the pig. 150 to 180 days after birth, the feed is formulated with amino acids and calories carefully controlled.
  • Region of production: Gunma prefecture, amongst others (a total of 80 places within Japan)
  • Meat quality and characteristics: The meat has a moist and glossy texture, with juicy fat that is refreshing and sweet.
  • Recommended dishes: Tonkatsu etc.

7. Rose Pork

Kimchi nabe *picture is a representation

  • Standard: A variety of pigs cross-bred in Ibaraki prefecture, the type of pigs, feed, farmers, and vendors is strictly controlled. 150 days after birth, they will be fed a diet with 15% wheat.
  • Region of production: Gunma prefecture, amongst others (a total of 80 places within Japan)
  • Meat quality and characteristics: Firm muscle with high-quality fat marbled in, you can easily taste the thickness of the umami, which has even been scientifically proven.
  • Recommended dishes: Kimchi nabe

 Kimchi nabe is a dish where kimchi and vegetable are boiled together in a pot. The spice and acidity of the kimchi complement the thick umami of the pork, for a top-class dish.

8. Sangenton (Raised on Japanese rice by Hirata Farm)

Hiya-shabu salad *picture is a representation

  • Standard: A cross between three varieties of pigs with well-known lineages, is the Sangen Kōhai Buta. 200 to 250 days after birth, to improve the taste and increase the safety of the pork, it is fed a special plant-based feed, which includes specially ordered rice.
  • Region of production: Yamagata prefecture
  • Meat quality and characteristics: The muscle fibers are thin and chewy, with fat that is whiter and sweeter than regular pork.
  • Recommended dishes: Hiya-shabu salad

Hiya-shabu salad consists of thinly-sliced pork that has been boiled and cooled, then mixed with salad and dressing, and with a single bite you can taste the umami of the meat and sweetness of the fat. With its refreshing taste, it is perfect for summer when you have lower appetite.

9. Hakkinton Platina Pork

Ginger stir fry *picture is a representation

  • Standard: 200 days after birth, non-GMO locally-produced corn is ground up and used in feed. Water used comes from Kamaishi city in Iwate prefecture, and the pigs are raised on this activated water which flows through mineral-rich rocks.
  • Region of production: Hanamaki city, Iwate prefecture
  • Meat quality and characteristics: Thin muscle fibers that are easy for the teeth to chew, and when held in your mouth, the umami spreads.
  • Recommended dishes: Ginger stir-fry, etc.

10. Yume-no-Daichi

Tonkatsu *picture is a representation

  • Standard: To prevent disease, the farms where the pigs are raised and where they are fattened are separated, both within Hokkaido prefecture. 175 days after birth, a plant-based feed of 25% wheat and 10% potato is used.
  • Region of production: Hokkaido (Tokachi, others)
  • Meat quality and characteristics: The meat is soft and healthy, with a lot of oleic acid and a strong and characteristic umami taste.
  • Recommended dishes: Tonkatsu, etc.

Japan’s brand pigs are bred while paying the utmost attention to detail in the way they are raised, with various agricultural skills and techniques going into ensuring their safety and deliciousness.

Each one has its own subtle unique taste, and even in simple dishes like shabu-shabu and tonkatsu, you can taste the umami of the meat and sweetness of the fat.

The dishes we have introduced here are but a small selection, so please enjoy trying out different tastes at the restaurants, and try out the preparation method that interests you most.

(Supervised by Ishihara Natsuko, Japan Association for Food Education and Communication)

Via Live Japan

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