Now I remember a time when pork belly was one of the cheapest cuts that you could buy. But every now and then as with other "cheaper" cuts of meat, they come into fashion so inevitably the price increases with demand. It's like how Nigella Lawson single-handedly made lamb shanks treble in price (and tagines a commonplace cooking utensil in UK kitchens). Even so, more and more people are buying pork belly but how to cook it?
It's no coincidence that the Chinese have countless pork recipes. After all we were the first to domesticate the animal so we've literally had thousands of years of practise. The default word for meat in Chinese (肉) always refers to the flesh of pigs and of all the parts of the pig, the belly is favourite. Below are two classic Chinese ways with the same piece of belly draft that demonstrates the versatility of this piece. The first is Cantonese Roast Belly Pork (燒肉), with the crispiest lightest crackling covering moist firm meat. The second is Dong Po Pork (東坡肉) from Hangzhou region, braised until the flesh, fat & skin is so tender that it seems to dissolve in your mouth whilst eating.
When buying pork belly draft make sure that you are getting a nice even piece. There should be a good layer of meat followed by thin layers of fat/meat/fat then the skin – just picture a rasher of streaky bacon. Canny Chinese cooks always look for the clear definition of these five layers when judging the quality of the piece. This is what makes the belly a special cut of meat and different to all others. The skin should be clear of bristles, there shouldn’t be too many on the belly anyway but if there is then use a sharp knife or razor to scrape it off. Remove any sinew from the flesh side as this will cause the piece to curl up. The two recipes below can be applied to any sized pieces.
Roast Belly Pork
To get the lightest crispiest crackling possible then there are several steps to denaturing the skin in preparation to roasting it.
- Place skin side up on rack and pour boiling water to scald just the skin.
- Then using a skewer or a special spiked stamp poke the skin all over. This allows the skin to blister much more easily and evenly than scoring. I actually use a device called a Jaccard that allows me to make 100s of pinprick sized holes quickly and effortlessly.
- Lastly rub a little bicarbonate of soda or vodka on the skin and leave overnight. (Authentically lye water would be used but who has lye water to hand?) To impart flavour to the meat, rub salt and five-spice into the flesh side before leaving it overnight.
To cook, simply put on a rack and roast at 190C for one hour. The meat will be cooked but the skin will not yet be crispy. This is the eternal dilemma with cooking pork in an oven. By the time the crackling is crispy the meat is overdone, but when the meat is just cooked then the crackling is still chewy. So the best way is to finish the skin under a moderate grill (broiler), with direct heat on the skin it blisters easily and the crackling is guaranteed. Be careful to leave at least five inches between the crackling and the grill so that you are in control. The skin should be bubbling but do not go past the point of charring. Pull the pork out and wait for it to cool a little as hot crackling is never as crispy as cool. You can eat it now but for extra refinement gently scrape away the top layer of crackling to leave a perfectly even light finish. This is secret to the amazing pieces of belly pork that you see hanging in the windows of Chinatown cafés.
Tip: to chop into bite size pieces, lay crackling side down to cut into strips first. Then lay the strips sideways to chop into even morsels.
Dong Po Pork
In complete contrast to the crisp light crackling and the firm moist flesh of Roast Belly Pork there is the unctuous loveliness of this braised dish, Dong Po Pork.
Again the skin has to be prepared first to ensure that in the finished dish it is soft and melting.
- First blanch the pork in some boiling water for ten minutes to remove some of the impurities and set the flesh a little.
- Remove and pat dry before frying the skin in a wok or skillet on a moderate heat till the skin is evenly brown all over, you can if it’s more convenient deep-fry the whole piece instead. If this isn’t done then the skin will be too chewy, it should be very soft and delicate.
If you find that your piece is curling up, either cut into smaller pieces or make deep slashes into the flesh side. It is better for presentation purposes that the pork is as flat as possible.
Now the pork is ready to be braised. Choose a suitable sized pot that is just big enough to hold the pork and line the bottom with spring onion and slices of ginger. Place your pork on this bed of aromatics then add the braising liquor. For the size of pork you see in the photo (approx 1lb), I use 100ml of Shaosing wine, 75ml each of light and dark Soy Sauce, 100g of Yellow Rock Sugar, one whole star anise and just enough water to barely cover the meat (do not dilute the mixture too much). Simmer gently, covered, for three hours. Turn occasionally, but be careful near the end as the meat will be very soft. To serve, let it cool a little before slicing, then pour the strained braising liquid over the meat.
Of course as with any braised dish it will taste better the next day. You can slice it much more easily when it’s completely cool. Simply steam the pork on the serving plate and finish with some of the liquor warmed through.
If in the photo it appears that it’s still one big piece then that is the idea. But if you click on it and look more closely then you’ll see that it's cut into bite-sized chunks. The meat has been sliced almost but not quite all the way through. When you dig in with your chopsticks to take a piece then the meat should be so soft that the chunks should pull away easily.