Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Giving A Little Cheek

I'll get to food later, but there's other things I'd like to write about first.

What I am about to say is not easy to put into words but it has been very much on my mind recently, so I’m just going to toss it out there. I think Japan is starting to lose a bit of its magic to me.

Before I came here, and even for a good while after arriving, I felt like this was the place for me; that this was were I needed to be in the world. Recently, and especially in the last few weeks, however, I have started to feel that I could be perfectly ok living somewhere else. That maybe I would be better off somewhere else. (My mom will probably do a little dance when she reads those words)

I’ve tried to write out an explanation several times, but my thoughts just come out in a jumble. It’s not just work (though it certainly doesn’t help), there’s much more to it than that. I’ve thought about this a lot recently and obviously still have much more thinking left to do in order to get sort this out.

On a lighter note, the cherry blossoms were in bloom in Tokyo for the past few weeks and I managed to get out and enjoy them a bit. This past weekend aside, the weather has been really cold and overcast, which is hardly ideal weather for enjoying the flowers, but warm clothes and good company go a long way to overcome that. Here are some of my favorite pictures:

And finally, the food. Japanese grocery stores pretty much all carry the exact same cuts of meat and it can be quite difficult to find anything other than the standards. So when I decided I wanted to have a go at cooking pork cheek, I had my work cut out for me. To be fair, it's hardly a typical cut of meat, but I looked all over the place with no luck. Finally, I tried a small South East Asian market in Ueno that I go to from time to time where you can buy all sorts of crazy stuff. In one of the corners is a butcher who sells just about any part of chickens, pigs and cows anyone would ever want to eat (and more that you'd probably prefer to avoid), from basics like chicken breasts and pork tenderloin to the more rare such as cow intestines and blocks of blood. I asked for two cheeks at about $1.25 per 100g, thinking one per person would be a reasonable amount. It came out to a little less than a pound, so less than $5 and the guy toss in a few extra chunks for free. Not bad at all.

I'd read that the best way to cook them was a low, slow braise but couldn't find many recipes, so I just tossed them in a pot with chicken broth, soy sauce, chinese rice wine, a splash of vinegar, a few pinches of brown sugar, a couple of dried chilis and smashed garlic cloves, and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Normally when I do a braise at my place I'll let it go for at least 3 hrs, but that's because I don't pay my utilities bill and don't mind eating dinner at 10pm. This time, however, we were hoping to eat by 8pm plus Yuki has to pay the gas bill for her stove, so I only left it for an hour and a half this time. As it turns out, that was plenty of time and it was soft enough to cut with chopsticks. Freaking awesome. In Japan, the braising meat of choice is usually pork belly, but the amount of fat there is just ridiculous. It just seems wrong to make your main course out of anything that is 2/3 fat... I'm not trying to say pork cheeks are super lean or anything, but they're certainly miles better and, in my opinion taste twice as good anyway. The braising liquid was too delicious to waste and meat + rice hardly constitutes a balanced meal, so I stir fried up some veggies on the side as well, thickening the braising liquid to make the sauce.

Melt-in-your-mouth pork, a little salty, a little sweet. Good stuff. I just wish I had time to cook like this more often...


  1. Beautiful pictures Peter. I will do a dance with your Mom when she reads your words!! You will do well wherever you settle!

  2. Hello, Great pictures. I'd love to be in Tokyo around this time of the year. The cherry blossoms are so beautiful. I totally agree with you about pork belly. I think it's just wrong to eat blocks of fat... Your braised pork looks good. I'm getting hungry.

  3. the braise looks great! but since you're in tokyo, why not try sake instead of the rice wine? :) the japanese Morimoto wrote is on the apron on the very first image of the post. :)