When my svelte and sexy wife S and I first started dating, one of her friends described me (behind my back) as a “very porky person”. I’m not sure if she was talking about my ever-growing mid-section or the fact that my favourite meat was and still is pork. I’m hoping that it is the latter.
Maybe it’s a Chinese thing — to love pork so much — but for whatever reason, it’s the one meat I don’t think I’d be able to live without. Take me off beef? No problem. No lamb? Wouldn’t miss it. Even chicken I could leave behind, but pork? No way. And, of course, I have a few favourite preparations. Top of the list are xiao long bao and siu yuk. I don’t think I’ll be making xiao long bao any time soon. That said, I do keep hoping (aloud and as often as possible) that S will one day master the technique of preparing these delicious soupy dumplings. But siu yuk, or crispy roast pork belly, didn’t seem too complex. I mean, if I could make pretty decent char siu, surely I could roast me some pig belly too.
The only trick with siu yuk is getting the skin crispy enough–you want it really brittle and not the least bit chewy–while keeping the flesh tender and moist. I knew I could roast the heck out of a hunk of pig flesh until the skin was super crisp, but I was pretty sure that if I didn’t do it right, all that stuff under the skin would be dried out and pretty inedible. Surprisingly, it was actually pretty hard to find a good siu yuk recipe. Despite owning around a thousand or so cookbooks, I only found a small handful of recipes, and oddly enough the two that made the most sense came from two Western chefs, Neil Perry and Rick Stein. But neither recipe really seemed like it would yield the perfect pork belly. So I took to the Web.
Which turned out to be both illuminating and frustrating. The latter because of the sheer number of (fellow) food bloggers out there who boast about being able to make a rather stunning siu yuk, but then either keep the whole preparation or really important parts of the recipe secret. C’mon! If you’re boasting about your abilities on the Internet, don’t you want to share? As my grandmother would have said, “Aiyah!”
The illuminating part was the staggering number of contradictory or alternative recipes. Some advocate poaching then deep-frying. Others quick roasting at high temperature. Others suggest slow-roasting followed by a quck grill. Some others (and these I really didn’t trust) just roast the whole thing at a constant temperature. Some suggest scoring the skin. Others tell you never to do that. Some say score the flesh. Some recipes call for marinating the flesh; others don’t. Some suggest rock salt to increase the crackling; others suggest rice wine vinegar. With so many recipes suggesting different things, it all got a little confusing. I felt like I needed to call in the team from Cook’s Illustrated to run through all the variations and then tell me which one to try.
But since I don’t exactly have Christiopher Kimball on speed dial (not that he’d want to take a call from a blogger like me anyway), I had to sit down and try and frankenstein together what I hoped would be a recipe that worked. Which, thank the bacon gods, it did. It wasn’t perfect. The skin could have been just a tad thinner and more brittle in my opinion. But S and the friends I served it to said it was fine (but hey, any time someone feeds me free pork belly, I’ll tell them it’s good too). I’m going to keep working on it. It’s literally one shade shy of awesome. And I want awesome. I want to make siu yuk that people cry over, call their friends to rave about, and write songs about (well, maybe not that last one). Anything less and I won’t be happy.
1.5-2 kilo piece of pork belly, with skin on
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 big cubes of fermented bean curd, white or red
(or 1 tablespoon teaspoons of tauchu, i.e. preserved soybean paste)
1 tablespoon five spice powder
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
Wash your piece of pork belly really well, tweezing away any hairs on the skin. Pat it dry. Poke a great multitude of holes in the skin using a sharp cake tester or other kind of needle you might have in the kitchen. Lay the pork in a deep roasting pan, preferably on a rack in the pan. Get a big bowl of ice ready and set it aside on your counter. Boil some water–maybe a litre or so. Pour the boiling water over the skin of the pork. You want to blanch it. Then quickly remove the pork from the hot water and immerse it or cover it with the ice. After it cools down, pat it dry. Place the pork on a rack and pop in your fridge until it has properly dried out.
Make the marinade by mixing all the ingredients together. If using the fermented bean curd in cubes, mash it into the marinade. Take your piggy out of the fridge and invert it, skin side down. Using a paring knife, make either lots of small incisions into the flesh, or score it, whichever you prefer. Spread the marinade into the flesh and rub it in thoroughly. Pretend your giving that special someone a massage. Don’t let the marinade get on the skin though. Flip the piggy back skin side up on the rack and pop it back into the fridge. Let it marinate overnight.
When ready to cook, preheat your oven to 220 degrees Celsius. Place the pork on a rack set over a roasting pan that is filled up between a third to half with water. Pop the pork in the oven for 20 minutes. After that lower the heat to 180 degrees Celsius and roast for another 40 minutes. If the pan needs more water, please add some during the roasting process. After 40 minutes, take the pork out, turn the heat up to 250 degrees C, or however high your oven goes. Brush the rice wine vinegar over the top of your pork. Then pop it back in the oven for 15-20 minutes or so, until the top skin layer has bubbled up and looks all puffy, crispy and actually even a little charred. You want the whole top to be nice and crisp. If you want, you can even experiment using the grill function on your oven.
When ready, take it out and let it cool on a rack. If charred, use a serrated knife to “brush” off the charred bits. It’s actually very easy to do and you’ll be left with a lovely reddish-brown skin. When cool enough to eat, chop it up with a cleaver and serve to your very impressed friends.