It was a cold, rainy day at the Duncan Farmers’ Market but luckily, no lineup at Yesteryear Meats. I waited hopefully as the owner riffled through all of his four freezers searching for my request.
“Here it is,” he said, passing me a two pound chunk of Berkshire pork belly. “All that fat is good for you, full of CLAs” he said in his gruff, Aussie accent. “But not everyone appreciates it.”
He kept staring at me, looking long and hard, trying to cess out my pork-belly-loving-nature, before he passed the treasure to my outstretched hands.
“What will you do with it?”
“I’ll cook it real slow, Chinese-style,” I replied. “I’ll braise it so that the fat stays in big fat, snowy chunks.”
I knew by the way he cocked his head and narrowed his eyes he hadn’t tasted this before.
But I had.
In China – pork belly capital of the world – they kowtow to pork fat and praise its culinary worth. They’re simply astounded that so many Western diners carve away fat and push it to the side of their plates. My uncle, Hsiung Shu Shu adored the stuff and was faster with his kuaizi (chopsticks) than myself or Auntie Di. He’d spear the largest, fattiest morsel and wail “Ai yo!” before the pork met his mouth, his eyes rolling in ecstasy.
Standing in the misty rain at the outdoor market, I held my two-pound frozen parcel close to my chest, regretting that I hadn’t spent more time in Auntie Di’s Yong He kitchen decades ago. I could see her smiling and braising her pork belly long and slow in a covered clay pot, nestled inside a bamboo steamer basket. She’d calibrate a braising liquid of soy, stock, ginger, star anise and Shaoxing wine… but how many tablespoons, how many cups, I never bothered to learn the specifics.
My aunt made everything, except bao. All the steamed buns we ate came out of a cart pushed through the Yong He alleyways by an old woman who wailed out “maaaaaaaaaaaaaan tou!” plying her yeasty morsels day and night. Besides, Taipei in the 80s didn’t serve pork belly in a bun, the way David Chang at Momofuku has made famous.
Instead, Auntie Di would bring the clay pot to the table, along with four or five other dishes and politely say to our little family of three, “Mei you cai” which literally means “There’s no food”.
Ironic and understated, that was the cultural norm. Auntie Di spent most of every day cooking and preparing a generous buffet of foods for Hsiung Shu Shu and me to feast on.
Oh, how I wish I’d just stood there in her kitchen, observing and learning by osmosis. I have never mastered the cleaver like she who sliced a myriad different shapes, chopping ceaselessly upon a six-inch thick board, cut from a tree trunk. Why hadn’t I watched her prepare the wok, heat the bamboo steamers, clean the fish or stir up the scallion pancake batter?
Now, almost 40 years later, I must rely on the hundreds of taste memories stored in my palate to retrieve and recreate this braise. I know this belly is 90 per cent fat and needs to be browned at high heat to create a beckoning, caramelized surface. After that, my instinct is to allow the simple passage of time and slow, low-heat cooking. Many classic Chinese braising sauces are too heavy-handed with soy, so I add only enough. I snap a cinnamon bark in half, toss in little stars of anise, pour over the golden elixir that is homemade chicken stock. Instead of a clay pot and steamer, I turn to my enamelled cast iron Cuisinart and a 275 F oven. Just before I cover it, I press down a big sheet of parchment paper over the surface to prevent evaporation. Every single drop of this unctuous braise is precious.
I won’t serve it with rice or bring it to the table and pronounce I have nothing to show. My husband David is already salivating in the kitchen, lurking over the turquoise Cuisinart, offering to pull the belly’s buttery strands apart. While he prepares the meat, I take off the steamer’s lid and a cloud of sweet steam kisses my face. I can’t stop smiling at these fluffy white buns which open up easily without complaint, ready to receive snowy chunks of fat and tender juicy pork.
At the table, we dig in, our lips and cheeks smattered with the salty-sweet hoisin slipped around the meat, slipped around the spongy bun. Chef Chang will be proud of me. I have recreated his pork belly bao all the while remembering the premier Chinese chef in my life: Auntie Di.
Plus, I just heard someone call out “Ai yo”!
David is guaranteed seconds.
Chinese Braised Pork Belly
The most difficult part about this recipe is sourcing some quality pork – I recommend Berkshire pork raised naturally so that you are dining on healthy, fine fat.
2 tbsp organic canola oil
2 lbs pork belly
4 cups chicken stock
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp Shaoxing wine or cooking Sherry
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1 stick cinnamon, broken in half
2 whole star anise
3 garlic cloves, smashed
2 green onions, cut into 2-inch lengths
2 dried red chillies, chopped
1 tsp ground Sichuan peppercorn
Preheat oven to 275 F. Heat oil at medium-high in enamelled cast iron pot and brown pork belly on all sides. Add stock, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar, cinnamon, star anise, garlic, green onion, chillies and Sichuan peppercorn. Bring to a boil. Cover with parchment paper and lid and place in the middle of the oven. Cook for 2 hours or until meltingly tender.
To serve on steamed bao, place a chunk or shredded mound of pork belly inside, drizzle with hoisin sauce and garnish with freshly chopped coriander and peanuts.
Steamed Bao Buns
This is a simple dough that’s easy to make. You’ll be thrilled with the sight of these soft and fluffy bao once they are steamed. (T&T or any large Asian supermarket will have plenty in the frozen section if you aren’t up for the task.)
1 tsp instant yeast
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 cup warm water
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
In mixing bowl, combine yeast, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, flour and water and mix with dough hook for 3-4 min. Let dough rest at room temperature in the bowl, covered with plastic wrap, for 1 hour or until it has doubled in size.
Turn dough out on to a lightly floured surface and divide into 12 pieces, shaping each into a ball. Roll a ball into a 6 inch x 2 inch piece, baste lightly with oil, lay a chopstick vertically in the middle and gently lift the top of the dough over the bottom, pulling out the chopstick to leave a small tunnel. Arrange on a parchment paper covered baking sheet and cover with a clean tea towel. Repeat with remaining balls. Let dough rest 30 min to double in size.
Cut the parchment paper around each bun and place into a hot, covered steamer for 12 minutes. (Buns can be frozen once cooled and steamed to defrost).