A SUMP­TU­OUS SQUARE OF PORK BELLY

China Daily European Weekly - - LIFE - By PAULINE D LOH [email protected]­nadaily.com.cn

It has to be lay­ered in the right pro­por­tions, with a thin gelati­nous skin top­ping al­ter­nat­ing strata of lean meat and fat, each melt­ing into the other but still clearly sep­a­rate.

The best belly pork has at least three clear lay­ers of fat and meat, and chefs would de­light in meat with five dis­tinct lay­ers, evenly dis­trib­uted, with the per­fect ra­tio of lean meat to fat.

Prop­erly pre­pared, it melts in the mouth, the fat dis­solv­ing on the palate, rich but not greasy — you’er

buni. That is the pin­na­cle for a piece of pork belly, ar­guably the best cut of the pig to a Chi­nese chef.

It is in­deed a uni­ver­sal fa­vorite in China from the cold frigid north­ern lands to the tem­per­ate re­gions of the south.

You can­not talk about pork belly with­out men­tion­ing Su Dongpo, the Song Dy­nasty poet and court of­fi­cial who steadily ate his way to gourmet saint­hood de­spite his mixed for­tunes as a district ad­min­is­tra­tor in the Im­pe­rial court.

He was ex­iled sev­eral times and as­signed to then re­mote places such as Hainan Is­land, and Hangzhou. Wher­ever he went, how­ever, he en­deared him­self to his sub­jects by eat­ing and drink­ing with them.

He built the fa­mous cause­way across the pic­turesque West Lake as an ir­ri­ga­tion aid, and his name is on it to this day. But it is for his fa­mous pork belly in­ven­tion that he is most re­mem­bered.

Dong­porou is a square of belly pork braised in soy sauce and sweet yel­low wine un­til it is chop­stick-ten­der.

Folk leg­end has it that the peo­ple were grate­ful be­cause Su Dongpo had once again con­tained the an­nual floods. The farm­ers slaugh­tered pigs in cel­e­bra­tion and they re­served the best cuts for their gover­nor.

He loved a good drink, so they gifted him with flasks of the best yel­low wine as well.

Su Dongpo woke up the next day to find his doorstep cov­ered with slabs of belly pork, and urns of wine. There was so much food that he couldn’t pos­si­bly fin­ish, so he had to think of ways to pre­serve them.

He told his wife to cook the slabs of pork in soy sauce and yel­low wine, sea­son­ing them with the clas­sic pair­ing of gin­ger and scal­lions. To hold the shape of the pork, his wife tied the squares with rice straws, which in turn gave the meats a slight grassy per­fume.

The re­sult was such de­li­cious deca­dence that he in­vited every­one back for a feast, and soon, all were singing the praises of this newly cre­ated Dongpo Pork.

This is the tale that goes with the dish even now in the restau­rants of Hangzhou, and though the de­tails and the recipe may vary a lit­tle with each gen­er­a­tion of chefs, the ro­mance of its in­ven­tion re­mains.

The mighty pork belly man­i­fests it­self in yet an­other clas­sic Chi­nese dish, kourou, or in­verted pork belly braised with taro.

This dish has Hakka ori­gins, and trav­eled all over China with the “guest peo­ple” who left the Cen­tral Plains many cen­turies ago and led an itin­er­ant life be­fore they fi­nally set­tled in mod­ern day Fu­jian, Guang­dong and Sichuan prov­inces and Guangxi Zhuang au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

They brought this spe­cial pork belly dish with them and it soon de­vel­oped re­gional vari­a­tions as the Hakka chefs adapted to lo­cal ingredients.

This is a dish that re­quires a com­pli­cated prepa­ra­tion that is hours long, but it is a dish that must be served for all fes­tiv­i­ties rang­ing from house-warm­ings to births, deaths, wed­dings and ma­jor fes­ti­vals on the cal­en­dar.

The best pork belly is scrupu­lously cleaned, mar­i­nated and then deep­fried un­til the skin blis­ters. The meat is then dunked into cold wa­ter to shock the skin into ten­der­ness. The pork belly is then cut into the size of domi­noes and sand­wiched with slices of pur­ple taro.

Meat and taro are then neatly tucked into a deep bowl, skin-side down. A se­cret mari­nade of soy sauce and spices is poured over and the whole bowl steamed over high heat for sev­eral hours.

When it comes time to serve, the bowl is in­verted onto a plate so the ten­der pig skin is dis­played, brown and gleam­ing with juices.

Again, the long cook­ing process would have ren­dered the oil, and the pork belly would be lus­ciously rich but not at all oily — you’er buni.

Ban­quet dishes aside, ev­ery Chi­nese kitchen has its fa­vorite recipe of braised or roasted pork belly.

In clas­sic Can­tonese roast meats, roast pork is a sta­ple, with slabs of crisp-skinned bel­lies hang­ing be­sides roast geese, sweet fil­lets of lean chashao and white-cooked chicken.

The se­cret is in the five-spice salt mari­nade and the la­bo­ri­ous prepa­ra­tion of the skin, rem­i­nis­cent of me­dieval tor­ture in­stru­ments in­volv­ing many nee­dles. Of course, the chef’s mas­tery of the open flames de­cides how suc­cu­lent the roast pork will fi­nally be, but the high­light of a piece of roast park is al­ways the skin.

For me, the best belly pork orig­i­nated in my grand­mother’s kitchen. It was a homely braise redo­lent of cin­na­mon and cloves, and fra­grant with the per­fume of a good soy sauce.

The pork bel­lies were cut into smaller squares and they were ac­com­pa­nied by deep-fried tofu puffs and hard-boiled eggs tinted a choco­late brown by the sauces.

Ev­ery lunchtime, my plat­ter of un­pol­ished rice por­ridge would be ac­com­pa­nied by the stir-fried veg­etable of the day, and the de­li­cious nuggets of braised pork belly, and a hard­boiled egg.

My grand­fa­ther liked his pork belly re­ally crisp, and nanny would fish out the nuggets and sear them in the fry­ing pan. The fat would ren­der and crisp and get re­ally crunchy. My grand­fa­ther al­ways shared his pork belly with me.

The Chi­nese pork belly has trav­eled far, both through time and dis­tance. Western chefs dis­cov­ered the braised meat about two decades ago, and some ac­tu­ally made a ver­sion of Dongpo Pork as their sig­na­ture dish.

Those were the days when Asian fu­sion first mes­mer­ized global gourmets. These days, how­ever, you are more likely to find them in Hangzhou din­ing on the real thing.

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