Pork belly is now a very popular meat. Well I guess it's always been very popular in streaky bacon form but over the last few years vast numbers of people - myself included - have started to appreciate big lumps of it. The crisp crackling (what other cut offers such a high crackling to meat ratio?) and meat kept moist through the rendering of the layers of fat are worthy of any table. Add to that a reasonably budget price tag and it's a wonder it's not a staple. Well it's not really that much of a wonder with those huge layers of fat but for a once in a while budget treat it's hard to beat.
Whilst I love a bit of roast pork belly I think there's so many more ways to enjoy this cut and if you really want to reach true pork belly enlightenment (there is such a state) you need to move out of these crispy, comfortable surroundings and start looking at softer preparations. Whilst the crisped skin is a delight there's also much to be said of the gelatinous skin properties of a long steamed or braised preparation, two methods that help rid the fat of its greasiness leaving delectable softness in its place. We can go a stage further still on our quest to truly know this cut - and we shall - but it's probably best not to go too quickly.
Moving away from pork belly for a minute the Hakka are one of the many minorities within China and are concentrated in the regions of Guangdong, Jianxi and Fujian in the south. I've never made it to these regions but due to some displacement in China and their fame for being hard workers they have spread far and wide over the years. A need for tin miners in days gone by means Malaysia has a large population of Hakka people - the state of Sabah (in Malaysia Borneo) being one of the few regions in the world where the predominant Chinese people are the Hakka - and it was there that I had my first, and subsequent, encounters with this dish. It seemed to be popular in the economy/buffet rice restaurants and I even had a fake meat version in a vegetarian restaurant in Kota Kinabalu.
The multiple cooking stages (boil, fry, steam) provide enjoyment to the committed cook, a bit of excitement for adrenalin junkies (have you ever tried to deep fry previously boiled pork?) and - most important of all - a skin of the most delightful texture, first puffed up through frying then relaxed through steaming, sat a top soft flesh and fat. The alternate layers of yam provide both an interesting look and a bland, starchy foil to the rich belly.
Hakka Pork Belly with Yam
serves 2-4 depending on other dishes
500gr pork belly
2 TB rice wine
1.5 TB cornflour
4 star anise
2 TB salted bean paste (dou jiang)
3 TB chopped garlic
1/2 shallot, chopped
1 TB oyster sauce
1 ts 5-spice powder
1.5 ts light soy sauce
The first stage is to boil the belly, just 20 minutes will suffice. Enough to rid it of any impurities (think the scum when you make stock) and pull its shape together. After this time remove and allow to cool fully.
Next off prick the skin repeatedly with a fork then rub the skin with 1 ts of light soy sauce and allow to dry. Heat some oil in a saucepan and then deep fry the pork (skin side down) until golden. Be very careful, mine damn near exploded and it did blow the lid off the saucepan (I don't have a deep fat fryer) and send hot oil flying out and over the walls. It seemed to calm down after the first couple of minutes and two to three more and it looked ready to eat.
No crispy pork belly today though so dump it in a bowl of cold water and leave to soak for an hour. By the end of it the skin should have softened and look like yours does when you fall asleep in the bath.
Whilst the belly is soaking prepare your yams, which aren't yams in either England or the US (sweet potatoes to us) but what we'd probably call taro, although eddoes seems a popular name too. I was looking for slices maybe 4cm x 5cm (to match the size of the belly slices) and from four largish taro I cut 3 slices from each. This left me 12 pretty similar slices and lots of leftovers which I made a soup with. Rub the slices with a paste made from 1/2 ts of light soy and 1/2 ts five spice then deep fry till golden, you're not fussed about cooking the inside as the steaming will do that. This was far more pleasant than deep frying belly.
Remove the belly and slice into 1.5cm thick slices. My piece was maybe 10cm x 10cm after frying so I sliced it lengthways into two 5cm x 10cm pieces then sliced each crosswise into 7 slices. This meant I could layer my 12 slices of yam between them with pork belly at each end.
To make the sauce first fry the garlic and shallot in a little oil before adding the salted bean paste (dou jiang), 400ml of water, the star anise and the oyster sauce. Bring to the boil then add 1.5TB of cornflour (mixed with a little water) and boil till thick.
Carefully layer your pork belly with the yam then place into a bowl skin side down, making sure the bowl is small enough to hold the belly and yam together but not too small that the sauce can't get between them (I made this mistake). Pour on the sauce, making sure it gets between the belly and yam, splash on the rice wine then cover with foil and place the bowl into a steamer, steaming it for 1.5 hours.
Once done drain the sauce into a bowl, turn the belly out onto a serving plate and pour the sauce over it. You could always put the belly and yam into the bowl skin side up and serve it directly from the bowl it was steamed in too.