Homemade Chinese-Style Preserved Pork Belly (五花臘肉)
When I featured a commercially produced Chinese Preserved Pork Belly in a ‘Foodstuff’ post some time ago, I made a mental note to do a home-made version for you at some point. Unfortunately, whenever pork belly has appeared in our stores it has, until now, always been sliced and the slices are, as I discovered in a test recipe, just too thin to produce a decent result. A few days ago, however, I saw two one pound slabs of unsliced belly in our local store and I grabbed both of them. It is a shame that the rind has been removed but you can’t, as they say, have everything.
Many recipes for making preserved pork belly are quite complex and employ quite a variety of spices to flavor the meat. Some, especially recipes from Hunan, cold smoke the meat as well as salt-curing. Sichuan pepper is often used, as are Fennel, Cinnamon and Star Anise, but I don’t much care for the sweeter aromatics in this type of preparation and the version I will be making for you here is very straightforward and simple indeed…
- 1lb. Pork Belly;
- 1 level tbsp. Salt;
- 3 tbsp. Sugar;
- ¼ cup boiling Water;
- 3 tbsp. Shaoxing Wine (substitute Sherry or Brandy, if you like);
- 2 tbsp. Soy Sauce;
- 1/8 tsp. Saltpeter or other Curing Salt (see below).
For curing salt, I am using Prague Powder #2 which contains Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrate. You may omit this if you can’t or don’t want to use nitrates but, in that event, I would be inclined to dry the meat in a low oven, rather than air-dry (and then use the meat very quickly).
Cut your belly into slices about 2cm thick. In a small bowl, dissolve the sugar and salt in the boiling water and then add the remaining ingredients.
When the curing mix has cooled, put the pork into a Ziploc type bag and then pour in the liquid. Put the bag into the fridge and leave to cure for two days. During this time you will need to turn the bag periodically to ensure all the meat comes into contact with the cure.
After marinating, blot the strips well with paper towels. To facilitate hanging, bore a hole at the end of each strip with a skewer and thread through a loop of string.
Some people sun-dry the meat but this is entirely impractical where I live and I will just be simply air-drying. For this, you need to hang the meat in a cool, dry place that has lots of air circulation. In one of our back-rooms, my wife keeps a window open all the time and so this is ideal as there is almost always a slight breeze coming.
The length of the drying time will vary depending upon the thickness of the slices but anywhere from 4 to 10 days will generally suffice. Mine were hung for 7 days and, at the end, were leathery hard on the outside but still quite supple in the center.
Here you can see a couple of slices cut from the end of a larger piece. The fat is still quite soft, while the meat has the firmness of a dry-cured ham.
Most Chinese sources will tell you that the meat must be cooked before consumption. However, Chinese cuisine has traditionally never much favored raw foods (even fresh salads are uncommon), and the process for making this is not dis-similar to that of Prosciutto which is frequently eaten without cooking. Indeed, if you try a piece of the uncooked product, you will find it has a delicious, almost apple-like taste, and much the same consistency as a good prosciutto. Personally, I could snack on this with all the same gusto as a good beef jerky, although it must be pointed out that the fat content of this product is WAY higher.
For cooking, it is best to use a relatively gentle moist heat. You need to keep the cooking time brief enough to just allow the meat to be heated through and get a little more tender. If you go too long, the sweetness disappears and the texture also suffers, with the meat taking on a fibrous, card-board like quality.
Steaming is a great method. Try steaming thin slices with a green veggie of your choice, or else on top of rice (perhaps along with some mushrooms). The latter dish is really delicious as the steaming juices from the meat soak down into the rice giving it a lovely flavor.