Butagumi 豚組- Tokyo, Japan

こだわり、極める。。。

Kodawari, Kiwameru…  These are 2 principle words which define Japanese artistry and culture, and is especially true of Japanese cuisine.  One must understand the intention behind these 2 words in order to truly appreciate the beauty of Japanese food.

こだわりKodawari means an uncompromising and relentless devotion to pursuing something.  It is when special consideration and attention is given to a particular subject matter.  To some, it can even be interpreted as a serious obsession and a stubborn refusal to compromise.  An artisan may show kodawari by continuing to carve lacquerware bowls by hand rather than by machine, by insisting on applying 50 individual layers of the lacquer rather than cutting corners by applying 30 because the resulting shine is not the same, or by etching intricate designs only with that one particular tool that a certain other artisan makes because the other tools do not have the same feel.  A chef’s kodawari may be that he only uses the natural spring water from a certain mountain for a soup dish because all of the 300 other types of natural spring water that he tried did not achieve the taste that he desired.

極めるKiwameru means to perfect and master a skill to the utmost extremes.  It involves unyielding discipline and practice to perfect an art down to the most minute detail.  It often involves years of practicing a particular skill in order to be the best.  It may also involve numerous sacrifices- money, family, time, reputation- in order to perfect an art to a level that cannot be replicated by any other.  However, the end result is a product that is the finest in the world.

Wikimedia Commons/ Danilo Alfaro

In a previous article, I described the culture of raising exquisite Japanese beef.  For the rest of the world, Kobe beef is regarded as the holy grail of cattle, but Japanese farmers have taken their kodawari to a whole different level.  Many have dedicated their entire lives to kiwameru a certain type of brand name beef which is so ideal and perfect that it can silence any food critic.  There is a similar, if not more competitive field for pork in Japan.  You may have heard of Kurobuta pork, as it is served in many fine dining restaurants in the US.  But Kurobuta pork is only the tip of the iceberg- in Japan it is common to find at least 5-10 different brands being offered at any time in a supermarket.

Chef Oishi is a man with a particular kodawari for fine pork, and he has dedicated his life to kiwameru the quintessential Japanese pork dish- tonkatsu.  Tonkatsu, or deep fried breaded pork cutlet, is the ultimate comfort food.   Hearty cuts of juicy pork meat with a crispy panko crust, drizzled with tonkatsu sauce, are loved by kids, housewives and businessmen alike.  Chef Oishi got his first start in the culinary world in a tonkatsu restaurant, after which he went on to pursue French cuisine.  However, in 2005, he came back to his roots.  After traveling around the world in pursuit of the finest pork and the equally fine ingredients with which to make tonkatsu, he opened a tonkatsu restaurant called Butagumi (which means ‘pig clan’).  In his restaurant, he proudly serves what he calls the 究極のトンカツ, or the ‘ultimate tonkatsu’.

Berkshire boar image by Scott Davis

If you were impressed with Maisen and their selection of 5-6 types of pork on their tonkatsu menu, then you’ll be blown away with the 57 brands of pork that Butagumi may offer at any time on their ever changing menu.  Butagumi’s menu reads like an encyclopedia of pork with detailed descriptions of their breed, diet, farming techniques, living space, evolutionary history and reputation.  Each caption also describes the quality of the meat and the flavor of the fat.  The general breeds of pork are Yorkshire, Duroc, Hampshire, Landrace, Berkshire, Spotted, Chester White and Poland China. Other rarer breeds like the Okinawan Agu, Spanish Iberico and Chinese Meishanton also exist.  Most market pigs are crossbreeds of 2 or more of these main purebred stocks.  When was the last time that you ate pork?  Do you know where that pork came from and what kind of breed it is?  Probably not.  Butagumi believes in ‘traceability’ of food.  The majority of the pork brands featured on the Butagumi menu are Japanese and come from select farms.  Farmers raise their pigs in a very specific way to achieve perfect texture and flavor, reflecting the Japanese kodawari philosophy to kiwameru their craft.

Butagumi is a restaurant in a quaint 2 story timber frame house in the middle of posh Nishi-Azabu that looks like a secret hideaway.  This house has remained standing since 1958 even though all of its surrounding structures have been replaced by modern buildings and high rises.  There are inviting lanterns and a white noren sign at the front entrance inscribed with とんかつ ‘tonkatsu’ to welcome you into this metropolitan museum of fine pork.  There are tables on both floors, but upstairs in the semi-private horigotatsu rooms is the place to be.

Butagumi is a purist restaurant, unlike Maisen which also offers deep fried shrimp, pan fried pork dishes and curries.  However, there are a few non-tonkatsu items on their menu such as braised daikon radish with miso dengaku sauce.

蝦夷鹿の生ハム, or Hokkaido venison carpaccio, seasoned with ground white pepper and garnished with cubes of sweet mango, was tender, light and smokey.

Iberian pork rillettes with a sprinkle of pink peppercorns was the perfect complement to our bottle of 2007 Vincent Gaudry Sancerre with its fresh and fruity flavors and silky tannins.

Mie Oysters gratinée was the daily special, and the plump oysters, nestled in their little beds with a blanket of toasted cheese and cream, were delicious.

Of the several salad and vegetable dishes on their menu, the most popular is their Melimelo salad, a bouquet of fresh salad greens, cherry tomatoes and pork salami in a citrus miso dressing.

In Japan, tonkatsu is served in 2 cuts: ロース ‘rosu’, which is pork loin, and ヒレ’hire’, the leaner fillet.  People choose the cut depending on their personal preference or their mood.  The pork is then dredged in flour, dipped in egg and coated with panko bread crumbs before being deep fried in oil.  The finished product is served on a copper mesh which keeps the tonkatsu shell nice and crisp.  Tonkatsu is traditionally dipped in tonkatsu sauce, a thick vegetable based brown sauce that resembles Worcestershire sauce, and enjoyed with shredded cabbage, rice and miso soup.  Chef Oishi takes his kodawari to the max in all of these ingredients for his ‘ultimate tonkatsu’.  He uses a special blend of Taiyu sesame oil and cottonseed oil to achieve that perfect light and crisp exterior.  The panko bread crumbs are made from a special kind of bread that has a subtle sweetness to complement the pork.  Succulent organic cabbage is sliced to order to maintain its freshness.  The koshihikari rice from Ibaragi prefecture is certified organic and steamed in a special rice pot.  The meat is seasoned with Andes rock salt and organic white pepper from Ponape island in Micronesia.  The tonkatsu sauce is made in-house, and it is recommended to dip the meat in a little bit of sauce with each bite rather than to drizzle the sauce over the meat.  This way the deep fried exterior remains light and crisp during the entire meal.  Chef Oishi also recommends enjoying some of the meat with a little bit of salt to enjoy the true inherent flavors of the pork.  All of these rules are just a part of the chef’s kodawari which he wants to share with everyone.  One would be a fool not to take this pork master’s wise advice.

A lot of the pork that was being offered that night was new to me.  I was familiar with Tokyo X, SGP (Super Golden Pork), Meishanton, and Kenton, but I had never heard of Golden Boar Pork, Amami no Shima pork, Yonezawa Sangen, or Ryukaton.  We started with a loin cut of 白金豚 hakkinton, also known as Platinum Pork, which is a crossbreed of Berkshire, Yorkshire and Landrace.  They are raised in Iwate prefecture, and are exclusively given natural spring water from the local Okubane mountains for drinking.  The meat was superbly sweet, and its fattiness was well balanced.

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I was excited to try the loin cut of Mangalitsa pork.  I’ve been hearing about this prized Hungarian pork all year, and how it’s all the rage in fine dining restaurants around the world.  Unlike traditional pigs, these wooly pigs have thick curly hair which can be yellow, red, grey or black depending on its type.  Although most breeds of pigs are ‘meat-type’ and produce lean meat, the Mangalitsa is an extreme ‘lard-type’ breed which produces marbled juicy meat that is dense in flavorful fat.  They’re primarily raised on pumpkins and acorns.  The Mangalitsa (spelled Mangalica in Hungarian), was first bred in the 1830′s by the Hungarian Royal Archduke Jozsef.  However, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in WWI, coupled with the higher demand for cheaper meat-type pigs, the Mangalitsa almost went into extinction.  Now Mangalitsa production is back on track due to dedicated farmers, and its demand is rising from pork aficionados who have fallen in love with its unique flavor.  Although Mangalitsa pork has more than double the marbling of average pork, it tastes lighter and cleaner due to the fact that the fat is more unsaturated and melts at a lower temperature.  Did you know that the first Mangalitsa pig ever exported to the US was sold to The French Laundry in 2006?  Way to go Chef Keller.

As you can see on the cross section of the Mangalitsa tonkatsu, there’s an overwhelming presence of fat with occasional sections of meat injected within to make a barcode pattern.  Surprisingly, this famed Hungarian treasure, which shares the same DNA as Jamón Ibérico, was light, refreshing and delicate with no heavy aftertaste.

いも豚 imobuta, which literally means ‘potato pork’, is named so because this breed is predominantly raised on starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, tapioca and sugarcane.  Imobuta is a crossbreed of Landlace, Yorkshire and Duroc, and is prized for its light flavor and minimal gaminess.  It is believed that the potato starches, in addition to glutamine and asparagine from the other components of its diet, produce a unique level of umami that renders this lean meat sweet and delicate.

These fillet cuts of imobuta were lean and light, and cooked to maintain a rosy pink color in the center.  With a high protein to fat ratio, these delightful pieces of imobuta tonkatsu almost tasted like veal.

With the extensive list of pork breeds that you can choose from, it’s easy to get lost.  How do you go about choosing what to have for your meal?  The servers can usually guide you depending on whether you’re looking for something light and lean, fatty and dense, or juicy and full of umami.  If you’re still torn, you can order the Butagumi-zen set which will bring you a sampler of small tonkatsu morsels, each made with a different cut of pork.  These end up being more like hitokuchi katsu, small morsels of ‘one-bite cutlets’, which won’t give you the same satisfaction as finishing a whole thick cut of juicy tonkatsu.  Whatever you end up ordering, a visit to the Butagumi pork museum is sure to open your eyes to a whole new world of pigs and the artisans who love them.

Butagumi 豚組

港区西麻布2-24-9

TEL/FAX:03-5466-6775

営業時間 11:30~15:00 (LO 14:00)/18:00~23:00(LO 22:00)
月曜日定休 (※祭日の場合は営業、翌火曜日振替休み)

2-24-9 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku

Tokyo

Closed on Mondays

Open from 11:30- 15:00 for lunch, 18:00- 23:00 for dinner

Random trivia:  Did you know that pig’s ears are notched so that farmers can identify what month they were born and which sow they were born from?