Why It Works
- Using very thinly sliced meat means you don't have to marinate it for very long.
- Cooking the pork in batches leads to more browning and less steaming.
Pork ginger, also called "Japanese ginger pork," according to Google, is one of those dishes that's so simple you'd never think to write down the recipe.
If you grew up eating pork ginger (which is what we called it in my house) or butaniku no shogayaki (which is, the internet assures me, the Japanese name for what we grew up eating in my house), you probably know how to make it the way it was made in your house; if you didn't grow up eating it, it's likely, although by no means certain, you have no idea it exists. However, the appeal of thinly sliced pork, marinated briefly in soy sauce, mirin, sake, and ginger, then quickly stir-fried with more ginger than seems necessary, should be obvious to most everyone who eats pork: it's salty, savory, and a little sweet, both from the sugars in the mirin and sake and because of pork's innate sweetness. Eaten hot with a pile of hot white rice, it's a satisfying, if spare, dinner; eaten cold over a bowl of hot white rice, it's an even better lunch.
Thin Slices, Flavorful Cuts
Although I've known for a while that our recipe library didn't have pork ginger, writing up a recipe seemed unwise because the dish sort of depends on having access to very thinly sliced pork, the kind that's sold in Japanese supermarkets for yakiniku, Japan's version of Korean barbecue, or for shabu shabu and sukiyaki. When we were tossing around ideas for quick and easy recipe ideas, I noted this lack of availability being an obstacle for our readers, but my colleague Sasha responded by noting that H-Mart is now a nation-wide chain and it offers thinly sliced pork, and others noted that it's also easy to find it at other large Asian grocery stores that sell items for hot pot. And here we are.
Pork ginger doesn't have to be made with thinly sliced meat. It just happens to be superior when made with tougher cuts of pork, like shoulder and belly, both of which have a nice mix of fat, muscle, and tough connective tissue that can give shoulder and belly the illusion of juiciness and tenderness even when thoroughly cooked. But that connective tissue can also make them tough—unless you buy the cuts in very thin slices, which breaks up the connective tissue and ensures it'll become delicious and easy to eat after only a brief stint in a hot pan.
I've made pork ginger at least a couple of times a month for my entire cooking life, even when thinly sliced shoulder or belly are unavailable. At those times, I've used leaner pork tenderloin or loin, cut into slivers. The result is still very tasty, but it lacks the sort of textural complexity inherent in a cross section of shoulder or belly, with a nice band of fat that's alternately chewy and meltingly ephemeral, a fair amount of tender meat, and a bit of tougher, collagen-rich connective tissue that can run the gamut from toothsome to gelatinously soft.
Keeping It Simple
Since this recipe is so simple, there wasn't all that much I could see to test. The proportions of ingredients in the marinade are dictated primarily by taste, the taste in question in this instance being what I remember of my mother's. I haven't changed the proportions all that much over the years, but I have decided that adding grated garlic to the marinade is unnecessary (even if it is quite tasty), and I've found I prefer to have julienned bits of ginger, softened slightly by a little heat, in the final mix; scallions I've added as a completely unnecessary yet welcome bit of greenery (and onion-y flavor).
Some recipes for pork ginger call for marinating the meat, cooking it, and then constructing a sauce after the fact; I think this is a wonderful idea, but part of the reason I like making pork ginger the way my mother made it is it's a quick two-step process, even if the alternative is an almost equally quick three-step process. My preference is more a demonstration of culinary inertia than anything else. When it comes to pork ginger, I am a stone, at rest.
Comparing Pork Cuts and Their Thickness
And yet, even the simplest recipe must be tested around these parts. I chose to focus on the pork, frying up identical batches of the recipe with thinly sliced pork shoulder, thinly sliced pork loin, and thinly sliced pork belly, comparing them against one another but also against versions made with slivered pork tenderloin and one batch of pork ginger made with thick-cut slabs of pork belly. The result wasn't all that surprising: They're all good! While different cuts might require slightly different cooking times—lean tenderloin cooks very quickly and is a little more uninteresting unless you brown it deeply, whereas the tougher, thicker belly needs to fry for longer to cook through and become reasonably tender—they all produce eminently edible sweet-salty meat dishes perfect for eating with rice. The fattier cuts produce more "sauce" (really just the exuded juices mixed with the marinade and any rendered fat), whereas the leaner cuts produced a dryer stir-fry.
Even in the world of thinly sliced meats, there are differences. Cuts intended for yakiniku are usually around 1/8-inch (3mm) thick, whereas shabu shabu cuts are even thiner at about 1mm; sukiyaki often falls somewhere in the middle. In my tests, the more thinly sliced meats (about 1mm thick), produced more scraggly bits of cooked meat than thicker slices of the same meats. The version I preferred was made with roughly 1/8-inch-thick (3mm) sliced pork shoulder, solely because of the tougher bands of chewy and salty fat, whereas the tasters of some of these trials appeared to prefer a similar thickness of pork loin slices. All of which is to say, while I recommend seeking out and using thinly sliced pork shoulder, you can really use any of the cuts above. (You can, yes, prepare beef or chicken in a similar way; it won't be the same, but it'll work out all right.)
Stir-Frying and Serving
As with any stir-fry, the main technique consideration is avoiding overcrowding your pan, whether you're using a wok or a skillet. You aren't going for wok hei (or torch hei) here; you aren't even going for a substantial sear. You just want to get a little browning on the pork and a little caramelization of the sugars in the marinade. You don't want the pork to just steam. However, having made this countless times, if the pan isn't hot enough, or the pork unaccountably seems to dump a ton of water in the pan upon contact and you get very little browning and very little caramelization, it's still tasty. The same can be said about using very high-quality pork or commodity pork; it will taste good either way, although one will be noticeably superior.
I tend to eat pork ginger with just white rice and pickles, but you can use it as an element of a more composed rice bowl, swapping out, say, the chicken or beef in simple recipes for donburi. However, I want to make a brief case for definitely serving it with kizami shoga, the pickled, julienned ginger that's colored an unnaturally bright red. The best part of kizami shoga, aside from its inherent gingery-ness and acidity, is that it's quite salty, and while it may seem odd to highly recommend a very salty condiment/pickle type thing to put atop an already quite salty meat-type thing, when you eat the combination with a ton of white rice it'll all make delicious sense.
- Two 2-inch pieces fresh ginger (2 1/2 ounces; 72g), one piece peeled and grated, one piece peeled and julienned, divided
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) mirin
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) sake
- 1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 pound (454g) pork butt, thinly sliced (about 1/8-inch thick; see note)
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) neutral oil, such as canola, divided
- 2 scallions, sliced thinly
- Cooked short-grain rice, for serving
- Kizami shoga, for garnish (optional, see note)
In a medium mixing bowl, stir together grated ginger, soy sauce, mirin, sake, and white pepper. Add thinly sliced pork and toss to coat each piece. Let marinate for at least 15 minutes and no more than 30 minutes.
In a wok or 10-inch cast iron skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over high heat until just starting to smoke. Add half the marinated pork, spreading it out in a single, even layer, and cook without stirring for 1 minute. Stir pork with a wok spatula or tongs, then continue to cook, tossing and stirring, until pork is just cooked through, about 1 minute longer. Transfer pork to plate, then repeat with remaining oil and pork. Return first batch of pork and any juices to the pan.
Add julienned ginger and cook, stirring and tossing constantly, until ginger is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Turn off heat, add scallions, tossing and stirring to combine. Serve immediately with rice and kizami shoga.
Wok or 12-inch cast iron skillet.
Thinly sliced pork butt (and loin and belly) can be purchased at Japanese specialty markets or large Asian groceries, such as H-Mart. If thinly sliced pork isn't readily available, you can substitute pork tenderloin, loin, or pork cutlets cut into thin slivers.
Kizami shoga is julienned pickled ginger, which is typically artificially tinted an unnatural red color. It can be purchased at specialty markets and some grocery stores.
The sake can be substituted with Shaoxing wine or, in a pinch, a dry white wine.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Once cooked, pork ginger can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week, but it's best eaten within several days. It's excellent when served cold over hot rice, as a light leftovers lunch.