Pork 37: Roast Pork (燒豬肉)

“Roasting a whole pig requires above all, patience. The interior of the pig should be roasted first so the pork’s fat is infused into the skin, making it tender, crisp, and full of flavour. However, if one should start by roasting the skin first, the fat between it and the meat will melt away and drip into the flames, producing roast pork with skin that is charred and tough with poor flavour.

This same technique applies when roasting suckling pigs.”

持牲單::燒豬肉
凡燒豬肉,須耐性。先炙裡面肉,使油膏走入皮內,則皮鬆脆而味不走。若先炙皮,則肉上之油盡落火上,皮既焦硬,味亦不佳。燒小豬亦然。

I like how the photo’s has that fogged-up soft-focus look, almost as if the viewer is getting all misty-eyed looking at the chucks of roast pork. (Credit: HFueenCube)

I have to be honest, out of all the roasted meat items, or siumei (燒味) in Cantonese , roast pork (燒肉) is one of my least favourite. If we do a head-to-head comparison, roast suckling pig has far crisper skin and tender meat, roast duck is more flavourful, and charsiu is like eating candy. At the end, roast pork really does not have much of a leg-up over other items in the suimei universe. Except maybe that weird coloured cuttlefish.

Note, this does not mean I don’t eat roast pork. It’s just that when I do, I do it more as an intellectual exercise than for leisurely enjoyment, like reading “The Grapes of Wrath” rather than a “Travels with Charley”. When the ingredients consists of just a whole pig with some salt and oil, any fault in technique and preparation is laid bare to the diner. When eating roast pork, you can’t help but appreciate the art and technique of making it, and also see the skill of the chef.

This actually makes roast pork a great benchmark dish for testing out a new siumei restaurant. Any place that can make a roast pork with crisp skin and flavourful juicy meat commands respect and deserves repeated patronage. It’s just that when you go back, order something else other than roast pork.

I for one prefer dish of roast duck and pork rice, or “chaya fan” (叉鴨飯).

Pork 36: Roasted Suckling Pig (燒小豬)

“Take a suckling pig weighing six to seven jin, pull out any hairs, and scrub it clean of blood and filth. Skewer the pig and roast it on top of a charcoal fire. All sides of the pig must be evenly roasted until its skin is dark golden brown in colour. Slowly and continuously bast the skin with butter while roasting.

Roasted suckling pig with delicately crisp skin is considered the best, those with crunchy skin are of lesser quality, while those with hard tough skin are ranked the worst.

The Manchurian have a method of making sucking pig by steaming it with wine and autumn sauce. In my family, it is my brother Longwen that has mastered this method of preparation.”

持牲單::燒小豬
小豬一個,六七斤重者,鉗毛去穢,叉上炭火炙之。要四面齊到,以深黃色為度。皮上慢慢以奶酥油塗之,屢塗屢炙。食時酥為上,脆次之,硬斯下矣。旗人有單用酒、秋油蒸者,亦惟吾家龍文弟頗得其法。

It’s…*sniff*…so beautiful… (Credit: Kham Tran)

When roasted by a master Cantonese chef, roasted suckling pig is one of those foods that are simply sublime. That crisp golden brown skin, glistening as if pebbled with tiny diamonds… The tender succulent meat… Really, there’s not much to say about it other than the fact that it is absolutely delicious.

In fact, it has been used more than once by my family as a standard for pure deliciousness. Once after a trip to Paris, my dad was raving about a baguette he had at their stupidly expensive hotel in the Latin Quarter. The way he described it was: “The crust was amazingly crisp. Like biting into the skin of a roast suckling pig.”

That must have been one fabulous baguette.

Pork 35: Bamboo Shoots Braised with Ham (筍煨火肉)

“Slice winter bamboo shoots and the dry-cured ham into square pieces and braise them together. Soaked the ham twice in water to rid it of salt, then add rock sugar and braise until soft.

Official Xi Wushan indicated that if one has already braised the ham but wishes to save it for a meal the following day, it is important that it be kept immersed in its braising liquid. Come the next day, simmer the ham in the liquid just until it is hot enough to be served. Should the ham be stored dry without its braising liquid, it will toughen and desiccate. On the other hand, keeping the ham immersed water would make it flavourless.”

持牲單::筍煨火肉
冬筍切方塊,火肉切方塊,同煨。火腿撤去鹽水兩遍,再入冰糖煨爛。席武山別駕雲︰凡火肉煮好後,若留作次日吃者,須留原湯,待次日將火肉投入湯中滾熱才好。若乾放離湯,則風燥而肉枯;用白水則又味淡。

Though bamboo shoots are a key ingredient in this rather confusing recipe, the real star here is the ham. (Credit: Joi Ito)

This recipe makes no sense at all. First, Yuan Mei starts off by telling us to cut and braise the bamboo shoots together with the ham. His then goes completely on a tangent, saying that the ham needs to be soaked twice in water to leach out its excess saltiness before being braised with sugar.

If one were to follow the instructions exactly, one would braise the bamboo shoots with the ham, throw away the cooking liquid twice, add the sugar, and continue to braise everything. But you would have done is essentially thrown away all that good flavour from the bamboo shoots and ham, which would end up giving you a dish that is bland and tasteless. Alternatively if you assumed that you just braise the ham with the bamboo shoots all the way with sugar, ignoring that salt leaching part of the second sentence, this dish would likely pickle your tongue while you eat.

My own interpretation of this recipe requires the re-cobbling of Yuan Mei’s instruction as follows: First, you soak the block of ham twice with fresh changes of water. Second, you cut both the ham and bamboo shoots into squares. Finally, braise everything with rock sugar. If done this way, you should have something neither salty or bland, but just right.

I am also not sure the last paragraph is actually true. If you fished out the ham from its cooking liquid and put it into a well sealed container, I sincerely doubt that it will dry up overnight. But assuming for whatever reason this is true, it should probably only be done with ham. For instance, if you cooked red-cooked pork and let the meat soak overnight in its cooking liquid, there is a good chance that the pork will become tough and overly salty. Stewed meats in the likes of red-cooked pork should be stored separately from it’s cooking liquid. The two should be recombined only when the dish needs to be reheated before serving. In fact, this is the method recommended by Jesse Lee (李嘉茜) in her excellent cookbook “Shanghai flavours”(上海味兒).

Chinese Food Docs

In recent years there has been some fantastic Chinese food documentaries coming out of China and Taiwan. Not only are their contents great, their cinematography and pacing is also impeccable.

While it seems that everyone and their grandma has heard of CCTV’s “A Bite of China” (舌尖上的中国) and all six episodes of the first season were voluntarily translated and easily found in Youtube, the same cannot be said about a Taiwanese production known as “The Taiwanese Banquet Hall” (台灣食堂)

The latter series is produced by Taiwan’s public television station, and has been very well received in Taiwan. A second season has already been made. Sadly, almost no one outside of the country (yes, country) knows about it. Watching it and listening to the interviewees speak of their love for their food and work, their children, and their struggles, all in that marvellous Taiwanese accent, I can’t help but be filled with pangs of longing and nostalgia for the place. It’s so touching it can make a grown man cry. Almost. Production of this level of quality and “flavour of human love” (人情味) deserves more attention.

Of the episodes that you can find online on found on Youtube, you can watch them all in less than 5 hours. And if Mandarin Chinese is not your language, well you’re out of luck. Here are two episodes:

So, 公視 PTS, if you’re reading this, maybe put the episodes online so that more people can access your content. Perhaps somebody who was sufficiently moved by your series will take them and translate them for you, free of charge. This would be a fantastic way to get Taiwan and Taiwanese food more exposure internationally, and direct more love from the internets your way. And yes, you need it.

Oh sweet sweet pineapple cake, how do I love thee… Let me count the ways…

Pork 34: Home-styled Pork (家鄉肉)

“There are important differences in the quality of home-styled pork from Hangzhou. They can be grouped into three different grades: high, medium and low. High grade items should be mildly salty but still umami, with lean meat that is tender enough to bit into. When these high quality specimens of home-cured pork are allowed to aged, they become excellent dried hams.”

持牲單::家鄉肉
杭州家鄉肉好醜不同。有上、中、下三等。大概淡而能鮮,精肉可橫咬者為上品。放久即是好火腿。

"Jinhua Spam"
Factory-styled pork, otherwise known as “Jinhua Spam” (Credit: 遠大貿易有限公司)

The homely sounding “home-styled pork” (jiaxiang rou, 家鄉肉) that Yuan Mei is referring to none other than the internationally acclaimed Jinhua ham. While many Chinese communities make dried cured pork of all sorts, the ones produces in Zhejiang are the most well-known and sought after. So much so that whole cities in the province had become inextricably linked to cured pork. For instance, home-styled pork of has become “Jinhua ham”, taking the name of Zhejiang’s Jinhua city. As well, the multinational cured meat products company “Hsin Tung Yang” (新東陽, lit. new Dongyang) was named after Dongyang city, located inside Jinhua city.

This section on home-styled pork (or Jinhuan ham) is less of a recipe and more an introduction in how to choose and distinguish the quality of this highly esteemed ingredients in Chinese cuisine. As with Spanish dry-cured hams, the way one determines the quality of ham is that should be highly umami and fragrant, not too salty, and easily eaten when sliced. When well aged, both types of ham are a highly fragrant and joy to eat. While most Western dry-cured hams are eaten raw, I’m not sure this is commonly done with Jinhua ham. In general, very few animal products are eaten raw in modern Chinese cuisine. While, Jinhua ham can probably be eaten raw, most will eat it prepare like the Chinese dry-cured meats mention in the last few sections: soaked in water or wine, steamed, then sliced.

Pork 33: The Fengrou of Master Yin Wenduan’s Residence (尹文端公家風肉)

“Slaughter a pig and portion the carcass into eight pieces. Stir-fry four qian of salt for each piece of pork and meticulously rub them with the salt such that not a speck of the pork’s surfaces are left unsalted. Next, hang the salted pork pieces high in a windy but shaded located. If by chance one finds insects or maggots chewing on parts of the pork, simply apply sesame oil to these parts.

Fengrou is best eaten during summer. To prepare, first soak the dried pork overnight in water before cooking. Note that one should not use too little or too much water when cooking. Rather, use just enough to cover the piece of pork. When cutting, use a sharp knife to shave the pork into thin slices against the grain of the meat.

The Yin residence makes this item so well that it is often sent as an Imperial tribute item. Even the fengrou of present day Xuzhou cannot compare with it. As for how they make it so well, no one knows.”

持牲單::尹文端公家風肉
殺豬一口,斬成八塊,每塊炒鹽四錢,細細揉擦,使之無微不到。然後高掛有風無日處。偶有蟲蝕,以香油塗之。夏日取用,先放水中泡一宵再煮,水亦不可太多太少,以蓋肉面為度。削片時,用快刀橫切,不可順肉絲而斬也。此物惟尹府至精,常以進貢。今徐州風肉不及,亦不知何故。

fengrou
The typical Chinese way of eating dry-cured meat is to basically soak, cook, and slice. If you’re European, ignore the first two steps. (Credit: 积厨创造)

Fengrou translates literally to “wind pork”, which describes this method of dry-curing pork by exposing it to cool wind. Although, this is a pretty typical way of making cured pork (and meats) in Chinese cuisine, what is interesting about this recipe is that it uses of ALL the parts of the pig to make fengrou, not just the more popular ham and belly. The eight individual parts of the pig likely consists of the four legs and the four portions of the main carcass. Due to the different amounts of exercise the muscle gets and their different curing and drying speeds, the flavours and texture of each of these parts must have been quite varied and would have made for some fun eating.

Also interesting is the method Yuan Mei prescribes for dealing with the bits of the pork infested by maggots: simply brush off the nasty little white wrigglers and rub sesame oil on the previously infested patches of pork. The possibility of insect infestation hints that fengrou can be made earlier in early autumn when the weather is warmer and insects are more prevalent. Either that or the bigger pieces of pork being cured are more easily insect infested? I’m also curious on what purpose the sesame oil is supposed to play. Perhaps preventing that spot of pork from drying out too fast? Or a deterrent to insects looking to lay more eggs on you chunk of pork? Whatever it is, it’s better than the organophosphate pesticides some unscrupulous modern manufacturers use to ward off insects and preserve their rather toxic wares.

As for why Yin household’s fengrou was so fantastic it may be due to terroir: the way the pig was raise or the coolness and humidity of the location and wind that dried the pork. It could also very well be the skill of the person making it. Or a combination of the both perhaps?