Sunday, June 15, 2008

Kurobuta Pork—The Other White Meat. NOT!

You may have seen Kurobuta pork on our menu at One Block West; we've been serving it for a couple of years, ever since we found a supplier. And you've probably wondered what it is.

Let's start with the basics. Kurobuta refers to a specific breed of pig called Berkshire, after Berkshire County, England, whose seat is Reading, just west of London on the M4. The Berk is a distinctive animal, mostly black, often with white feet and sometimes with white on the face and tip of the tail. Berks have really coarse hair and a medium length snout which is notably shorter than that of the common white pig. I kind of like the big hairy ears that point slightly forward.

Let's flash back about 375 years ago to Oliver Cromwell's nasty little scrap with the Kings Charles. Legend says that while Cromwell's army wintered at Reading, the soldiers discovered (liberated without compensation?) a wonderful black hog, tales of which these soldiers spread after the wars. The Berkshire hog as it came to be known was renowned for its size and outstanding flavor.

Scientific studies have shown that Berkshires are genetically predisposed to produce short muscle fibers and lots of intramuscular marbling, important for both tenderness and flavor.

I won't forget the first time that we served grilled Kurobuta rack chops, for more than one customer asked me if I hadn't mistakenly put a veal chop on the grill. Yes, the meat is that noticeably different from modern factory pork.

A word about factory pork. Historically, pork had been America's mainstay protein source, grown on small farms and in back yards everywhere. After World War II, the tide turned and pork consumption decreased to the point where chicken replaced it as America's primary protein source.

Faced with this crisis to their industry, the National Pork Board responded with a marketing campaign to put pork on a par with chicken. At the same time during the 1980s, Americans became diet crazy and looked to eliminate fat from their diets. Breeders responded by producing hogs that were up to 30% leaner than the hog of a generation ago. And they also produced a pig that gets to market weight very quickly, not giving it sufficient time to gain flavor.

Now when you produce a pig with that little fat, you certainly reduce the caloric content, but you lose all the marbling in the muscle tissue. This intramuscular fat gives both flavor and juiciness, that succulence that makes eating good pork such an ambrosial experience. The net result of factory pork competing with low fat factory chicken: tasteless and dry pork.

On the other hand, factory farming has brought us a wealth of very cheap, very low fat product. I'm not going delve into the environmental consequences and the animal welfare aspects of confinement farming. These are natural side effects of the market demand for cheap protein. Without factory farming, a lot of people would be denied access to high quality protein in their diets.

Remember "The Other White Meat" campaign from the National Pork Board touting their low fat, healthy product? It must certainly go down as one of the most effective marketing campaigns ever. When the National Pork Board uses the term white, what they really mean is bland and lacking flavor and interest. That they have convinced the Wonder® bread- and flaccid chicken breast-loving Americans that pork should be in their refrigerators should, I guess, not come as any surprise, especially since we are at least a generation removed from people who have tasted small farm, slowly raised pork.

But if you let these same people taste the two products side by side, it is clear in study after study that people prefer the flavor and succulence of Berkshire hog to any of the commercial hogs. And we chefs, people who love flavor, are leading the way for Berkshire and other small farm pork by putting it on our menus.

So, how do we get from Berkshire to the term Kurobuta that we use on our menus?

In the 19th century, the British government sent some Berkshire hogs to Japan as a gift. In Japan, the hogs were named Kurobuta (黒豚) or black pig. The exquisite pork was and is much appreciated in Japan and Japanese growers have perfected the art of producing fine marbled pork in the same way that they have perfected Wagyu (cow of Japan) beef, known here by the regional appellation Kobe. I'm not clear on why Berkshire pork is marketed here in the US as Kurobuta, but it is probably an intentional association with Wagyu/Kobe beef, the world's most luxurious beef.

There are a couple of other factors involved in making Kurobuta what it is, besides genetics. Pigs deposit the fat in their diet directly into the muscle tissue, making their diet extremely important for flavor. This is one of the reasons peanut-fed Virginia pork tastes so good, and why the acorn-fed pata negra pigs of Spain are so amazing. Kurobuta pork is fed a very careful diet, one calculated to enhance the flavor of the meat.

The second factor in good tasting pork is the lack of stress on the animal. Undue stress causes the meat to be dry and tough. Berkshire hogs are raised in low-stress environments and typically allowed to range where they will, with adequate shade to keep them cool.

Currently, our Kurobuta pork comes from small farms in the Midwest who take great care with their pigs, but we are eagerly awaiting the fall when our local Berkshire piglets will be market size.

I should also mention that besides Berkshires there are other wonderful breeds such as Tamworth and Old Spot, that are well worth finding and eating.

My apologies for this opus. I intended for it to be a short "Kurobuta is great pork; eat it" piece. My inner storyteller got carried away.


  1. Excellent. Please let your inner storyteller share these wonderful stories.

  2. great article! learnt a lot from it! I've just got my hands on some nice Kurobuto Pork Ribs, just wondering how I should cook it!! Oven bake the whole rack? Cut them up into chops and grill them? Any guidence would be great!

  3. I have always cooked ribs twice, first braising them in a flavorful liquid until very tender, and then finishing for final flavoring on a hot grill, in a smoker, or in a hot oven.

    I will note that this is the opposite of what a lot of BBQ pros do. They smoke first and then wrap the meat in foil and slow roast it to tender.

    Either way will work, but I will also tell you that the best ribs I ever had, I made myself. Pros, you do not want Chef Ed on the circuit!

    Whenever I approach ribs, I decide what I want the final flavor to be and let that guide me in the braising liquid flavoring. For example, if I wanted to do five spice (or hoisin) ribs, I might braise with soy sauce, green onions, star anise, hoisin, etc.

    Then for final cooking, I would put them on the grill with a glaze of hoisin, oyster sauce, green onions, sesame seeds, sesame oil, soy sauce, etc.

    For straight up smoked ribs with a tangy sauce, I might braise with a little apple cider, apple cider vinegar, and some yellow onion. After cooking, the braising liquid would go into the blender as the base for my BBQ sauce.

    Basic advice: cook in liquid to come about halfway up the meat, covered, in a slow oven for a couple of hours or until the ribs are very tender, but still hold together.

    Then finish the ribs in the smoker, on the grill, or in the oven. Remember, the sauce goes on at the last minute to dry out and caramelize a bit, but no earlier so that it does not burn.

    Hope this helps. Final comment, as long as you cook ribs low and slow, you can hardly mess them up.