Preserving pork and other meats is quite common in cuisines around the world but this particular Chinese product, essentially a fattier cousin of the more familiar of jerky, is a favored treat in my kitchen. The appeal for me is that pork belly, when cured with salt and sugar, takes on a wonderfully fragrant sweetness that mimics the flavor of dried-apples. It is a fatty treat, to be sure… a fact which might make some cautious about eating it… but, in fact, since the cured rashers are typically used in small amounts to flavor other ingredients, you still may wish to give it try.
By the way, curing pork belly in this fashion is not that difficult in the home kitchen and, sometime in the coming months, I promise to do a post on the topic. For now however, I just want to feature one of the many commercial products available in most Asian groceries…
The large Chinese characters on the front of the package pictured above are:
The first two characters translate as ‘five flower’, which is a poetic description of the layered appearance of fat and lean. The second two characters are most simply translated as ‘preserved meat’, but the actual meaning is a bit more involved. The character ‘臘’, which appears in simplified form as ‘腊’ can mean December, or the twelfth lunar month. It was typically during this period that animals were commonly slaughtered and the meat preserved for winter, so you will often see the term translated as ‘winter sacrifice meat’. By the way, although the character ‘肉’ is strictly rendered as ‘meat’, in Chinese, unless you specify otherwise, ‘meat’ is taken to mean ‘pork’.
Here the rasher is removed from the package and you can see that the meat has a wonderful mahogany color and glossy sheen to it. The ingredients listed include Pork Belly, sugar, dark soy, salt, and sodium nitrite as a preservative. The nitrite can be omitted in home preparations but, in commercial products, it extends the shelf-life considerably. It also, as with potassium nitrite, tends to give preserved meat a pink color (think bacon), but, while that may be masked here given the dark soy, I rather think that the preservative is used sparingly here. In some parts of China, notably Hunan, winter sacrifice meat is also smoked after being salt-cured, and those products, generally using less soy and sugar, have a definite reddish-pink hue to them.
When seen in close-up, you can appreciate the layering of fat with lean and the inspiration for the ‘five-flower’ appellation. The aroma, as I mentioned, is heavily redolent with the perfume of dried apple and, as long as one is fairly conservative with cooking, the flavor comes through beautifully in finished dishes.
The package suggests simply steaming slices of the meat (and presumably eating as is along with other dishes) or else adding it to rice as it is being boiled. You can also add it to braised or stewed preparations but, as I mentioned, it is advisable to keep cooking times short or else the texture will suffer and the best flavors dissipated.
I find thin slices are great stir-fried with vegetables, or else added to fried rice or noodles, but one of the most common uses is as a topping for steamed rice, with many people adding it into electric rice steamers near the end of cooking time (often with other additions like chicken or greens). I am going to be using some of the package I just opened for a variation on this idea within the next few days but it has also occurred to me that this Asian ingredient might be very nicely employed in the very western ‘Boston Baked Beans’. Indeed, I may well give that a try sometime in the near future as well…