Okinawan Culture Reflected in Its Food
Lynette Lo Tom
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“If you aren’t going to enjoy the fat, then don’t eat rafute,” Grant Murata declares passionately. Rafute is the unctuous braised pork belly that is a signature dish of Okinawa. Not to be confused with the more common and usually leaner shoyu pork, rafute, made the right way, has layers of fat between layers of rich pork that is lacquered with a rich sauce of Okinawan kokuto (black sugar), miso, peanut butter, soy sauce and awamori (distilled liquor made from rice).
Known to his wide circle of friends as “Sandaa,” Murata is the advertising and promotions manager for The Hawai‘i Herald and Hawaii Hochi. He is also a talented Okinawan sanshin performer and teacher. And, for three years, he and his then-business partner, Kyle Matsumoto, owned and cooked up a full menu of dishes at the popular “Off the Wall” restaurant in the Pearl Kai Shopping Center.
“Rafute was food for the upper-class, because the poor couldn’t afford to eat much pork, Murata continues. “It was special-occasion food.” His recipe is delicious and the meltingly tender fat is part of the experience.
His technique is unusual, as he marinates the pork slices in awamori before braising it in the soy sauce, sugar and miso broth.
Rafute is a symbol of the region, making use of what could be grown — soybeans for the miso and soy sauce, peanuts, awamori from rice, sea salt and the black sugar to season the precious home-grown pigs. He also adds ginger and garlic, dashi konbu (soup seaweed) and prefers to use awase miso — a mix of white and red miso.
Murata is particular about his preparation and the final product shows the care. He uses salt from Hanapëpë on the Garden Island of Kaua‘i, which he grinds into a fine sea salt. He also takes the time to remove all of the hair from the skin of the pig by searing it off with a propane torch. He then scrubs the skin to remove any hint of the burnt taste. Murata prefers to use Okinawan black sugar, which he gets from Okinawa, but says dark brown sugar can be used, as well. He even adds the soy sauce three separate times (so it absorbs better). Cooking is faster with a pressure cooker, but it can also be cooked on the stove for a longer time with the same results.
“The cut of meat has to be pork belly to be called rafute,” says Murata. “This was a dish for the wealthy, royalty class, the Samurai class, only for a few.” It’s rich, so you only need a few slices per serving. It is, however, spectacular in color, scent, texture and flavors.
(Okinawan Braised Pork Belly)
Serves 10, as part of a meal
4 pounds pork belly with skin on
1/4 cup awamori (can be substituted with shochu or sake)
3 cups water
2-inch by 2-inch strip of dashi konbu
1/4 cup Okinawan black sugar (can be substituted with dark brown sugar)
1/2 teaspoon finely ground salt
1 thumb-sized piece ginger, peeled and minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon awase miso (a mix of white and red miso) or substitute any miso
1 tablespoon creamy peanut butter (substitute tahini, or sesame paste)
1 cup soy sauce, divided
1/2 cup sugar
Salt to taste
Garnish: thinly sliced ginger
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