Citizens! The Imperator of Gastronomic Impudence – YOUR TFD! – is a gastronomic archaeologist and historian, seeking the hidden connections amongst recipes demonstrating how civilizations expand, change, adapt and disappear through time and space alike.
Perhaps surprisingly – this dish is a perfect example of how a Chinese recipe can move to Okinawa, then Japan, evolve, and move onwards to Hawaii and change still further whilst still maintaining its culinary DNA and heritage. I speak of the Okinawan delicacy known as Rafute, now a favorite of Hawaiians throughout the 50th state!
Rafute is a pork rib dish in the Okinawan cuisine of the island of Okinawa, Japan, which is skin-on pork belly stewed for a long time in a seasoned bath of awamori (Okinawan hard liquor) along with soy sauce and sugar, giving it a melt-in-the-mouth quality. It is traditionally considered to help with longevity and was in fact originally a form of Okinawan Royal Cuisine.
As eruditely noted on one of my favorite Japanese recipe blogs, justonecookbook.com:
Rafute is a pork belly dish slowly-simmered in sweet and savory sauce, with an origin from a famous Chinese dish called Dong Po Rou (东坡肉/東坡肉), Chinese braised pork belly (TFD note – I have a recipe for this here). Rafute has been eaten in Okinawa since the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429–1879) when it was served as a form of Okinawan Royal Cuisine.
Rafute consists of the three most signature produce/products in Okinawa: pork, black sugar, and awamori (distilled liquor). Traditional Rafute is made with Okinawa black sugar Kokuto (黒糖).
The slow cooking process yields the most tender and melt-in-your-mouth texture. While simmering, the fat renders and the pork belly soaks up all the delicious flavors. The skin and fat of the pork belly become gelatinous that even chopsticks can break down the meat easily. You don’t have to worry about the meat being greasy at all.
In researching this blog post, I came across this very scholarly genetic study of the Okinawans from the National Institute of Health:
Okinawa is the southernmost of 47 prefectures of Japan with a population of approximately 1.3 million persons. It consists of a chain of islands spread in an arc (Ryukyu archipelago) with the northern end of the chain near Amami Islands of Kyushu and the southern end near Taiwan. Okinawa Island, the largest and most populous of the Ryukyu Islands that make up Okinawa prefecture is geographically isolated, situated more than 500 km (300 miles) from mainland Japan, Taiwan, and mainland China. Okinawa prefecture was an independent kingdom (Kingdom of the Ryukyus) until 1879, when it was annexed by Japan and later became a Japanese prefecture.
The Okinawans have a very low age-adjusted mortality rate at older ages and among the lowest prevalence of cardiovascular disease and other age-associated diseases in the world. Furthermore, Okinawa has long had the highest life expectancy at older ages (eg, remaining life expectancy at age 65 years) among the 47 Japanese prefectures, Japan having led the world in life expectancy for several decades.
Okinawa also has had among the highest prevalence of centenarians among the 47 Japanese prefectures since records began to be kept by the Ministry of Health in the early 1960s despite the high birth rate and expanding population of Okinawa prefecture. This longevity phenotype has been in existence since records have been kept in Japan, and despite the well-known dietary and other nongenetic advantages of the Okinawans, there may be some additional unknown genetic influence favoring this extreme phenotype.
The Sanzan period of Okinawan history began in 1314, when the kingdoms of Hokuzan and Nanzan declared independence from the main kingdom of Chūzan. The three kingdoms competed with one another for recognition and trade with Ming China.
King Satto, leading Chūzan, was very successful, establishing relations with Korea and Southeast Asia as well as China. The Hongwu Emperor sent 36 families from Fujian in 1392 at the request of the Ryukyuan King. Their job was to manage maritime dealings in the kingdom. Many Ryukyuan officials were descended from these Chinese immigrants, being born in China or having Chinese ancestors. They assisted the Ryukyuans in developing their technology and diplomatic relations.
My educated guess is that Dong Po pork almost certainly made its way to the Okinawan archipelago from these southern Chinese settlers (where the original Chinese recipe is very popular). The fact that the word ‘rafute’ in Japanese is formed using the ‘katakana’ alphabet, indicating a word or object that is ‘foreign’ to Japan lends additional credence to my theory.
It probably really took off amongst the general Okinawan population when the Europeans came visiting the now united Japanese kingdom during the late 19th century along with their meat-eating ways. The Meiji Emperor forced the common folk to eat more meat in imitation of these giant and powerful foreigners, who must have grown so tall from their diet. Interestingly, the Okinawans have always believed rafute helped maintain their exceptionally long life-spans, if indulged in with restraint!
In Hawai’i, rafute is known as “shoyu pork,” and is served in plate lunches or on top of ramen. In the early 1900s, Okinawan immigrants in Hawai’i (who left en masse after the Japanese conquered the islands) introduced rafute into the local cuisine, as ethnic Okinawans owned and ran many of the restaurants in Honolulu, Hawai’i. However, unlike the Japanese version (or the Chinese original for that matter), the Hawaiian version include miso and I think it is even tastier for it.
As noted in 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).
So, in its spread from China to Okinawa to Japan to Hawai’i, we see the unique evolutions the dish accumulated at each step in its journey – I find this gastronomic anthropology fascinating and I believe I am the first to trace the steps of the dish from origin to its final destination!
Now, to make this dish you are going to need some special ingredients, but fear not Citizens – TFD has your back, as always! A key ingredient in this dish is Okinawan ‘black’ sugar – it is actually very dark brown and whilst hard to find, I discovered a source for you here. If it’s not available, dark brown sugar should be a good substitute.
The Okinawan hard liquor that is also central to this recipe may be purchased here, while fresh wasabi root can be purchased here. If you prefer to go with the less expensive dried and powdered version of wasabi, get it here. Lastly, by far the best instant dashi is this brand.
My version of rafute definitely pays homage to ALL of its stops and is truly a fusion of the different versions of the dish with its ingredients and garnishes – I think it is supremely delicious and hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
Battle on – the Generalissimo