HONG BAK VERSUS... HONG BAK; A FUKIENESE QUANDARY
Or cooked by a little food shop in their hometown, wherever that is.
Probably either in Kelantan or Sarawak.
"SEALED MEAT", OR "PICKLE MEAT"
The version known as 'hong bak' (封肉) is alleged to have originated in Tung An (同安 "tang oa~"), and is considered a traditional dish from the Min Nan (閩南 "ban-lam") culinary repertoire (福建菜系，閩菜系 "hok-kian chai-he", "ban chai-he"). Tung An is to the north of the port of Hsiamen (下門 "ah mui") , and as Hsiamen ('Amoy') is where many South-East Asian Fujianese (福建人「福建郎」 "hok-kian lang") hail from ancestrally, this may be reasonably credible.
Or entirely disbelieved.
The other version, called 'hong bak' (焢肉), is more common among overseas Fujianese, and often varies considerably from recipe to recipe. Many people will add hardboiled eggs, or fresh mushrooms, or dried tofu skin. Even large cubes of tofu, which may be deep-fried beforehand.
The Peranakan along the Malacca Strait will augment the flavour with coriander seed ground into a paste with garlic, ginger, and shallots, which is sauteed in the pan before the meat is added.
The first version has a back-story, the latter versions have the weight of fond memories.
According to the accepted narrative, a scholar who had achieved a major ranking in the imperial system prepared a celebratory dish of fatty pork with mushrooms and chestnuts, cooked in cloth that held it together in a block-shape. Later versions simply placed the large chunk of meat skin-side down and fried it with sugar. At the point where the caramel might start burning, soy sauce and rice wine were added, along with chestnuts and mushrooms, plus enough water that when the pot was sealed it would gently steam till done. Properly made, the fatty flesh was tender enough to break with the diners' chopsticks.
Another tale states that a destitute man, in order to make a variation of a luxurious porridge which was traditionally served during a Buddhist parade festival, went into hock to purchase a very small but rather nice chunk of pork. Which, in the Chinese scheme of things, naturally means a cut with alternating fat and lean. He carefully coloured it by sauteeing it and adding sugar, wine, and soy sauce. When it was dark and marvelously fragrant, he put it in his family's pot of rice gruel. It made it so splendid that his neighbors came over to have some, in consequence of which his fortunes improved, and within a number of years he was reasonably well-off.
No, I have no idea when that festival takes place.
The reason why the character 封 is used in naming the dish is that it means to seal, like an official letter or parcel. The meat is darkly hued on one side, and left whole while cooking, creating the visual representation of a stack of documents or cahiers.
Plus, of course, it IS sealed on one side.
The word 焢, which in Hokkien (閩南語 "ban-lam gi") sounds exactly the same as 封，is a transcription of the dialect word for semi-pickling meat, thus both making it savoury and less perishable in a warm climate.
Note that 肉, which means 'meat', is pronounced 'bak' in Hokkien and other Min languages, being a phoneme derived from a different route than Mandarin 'rou' and Cantonese 'yiuk'.
Possibly related to a proto-Malayoid root-word for hog.
HOW TO PREPARE HONG BAK?
The Hokkiens of South-East Asia all follow a similar procedure vis a vis the meat itself, but differ enormously as regards additions, the only thing standardly being some pre-soaked black mushrooms.
My original version had the pork left whole, scored and browned on the skin-side, then seethed with a little Indonesian-style sweet soy sauce and a lot of sherry, whereupon I would add ginger slices, whole re-hydrated black mushrooms, whole star-anise, a cinnamon stick, and water to come half way up. Then I would stick it into the oven at low heat, with the lid on, for an hour or two, and ignore it while it cooked in its juices.
It always came out perfect, and butter tender.
You could easily cut it with chop-sticks.
It was a variation of the 封 style.
That was a long time ago.
RECIPE: HONG BAK
One and a half pounds of belly pork with skin on.
Half a dozen cloves garlic (or less).
Half a dozen soaked black mushrooms (or more).
Half a dozen slices ginger.
A small piece of cinnamon.
Smallish piece of dried tangerine peel (陳皮).
Two or three whole star anise.
Three TBS soy sauce.
Three TBS brown sugar.
One TBS oyster sauce.
A very hefty jigger of sherry or rice wine.
Half Tsp. ground coriander (optional).
A pinch of freshly ground pepper.
Cut the pork into large chunks. Rub a little of the sugar on the meat, all over. Whack the garlic cloves with the flat of a cleaver to loosen the skin, which remove. Trim off the hard ends, but do not chop the garlic; it's fine the way it is.
Fry the garlic till fragrant, decant to a saucer; you'll add it back later.
On medium heat, colour the pork chunks well, allowing for a little caramelization. Now add everything else including the garlic, and enough water to nearly cover; the pot should be somewhat crowded.
Bring to a boil, turn heat low, and simmer for forty five minutes, stirring occassionally to prevent scorching.
If you are using a larger casserole for cooking, you may add some wedge-cut potato or broken tofu skin sticks (腐竹) to share the juices. In that case, increase the amount of ground coriander and add a little more soy sauce.
The oyster sauce is in lieu of the dried shrimp that many people would use for a faint savory touch.
You could also dust the meat chunks with a little flour before gilding them in the pan, which would enrich and thicken the sauce, but that seems rather pointless.
A slightly thin sauce is preferable when eating Chinese food.
Serve with steamed rice, of course, and your favourite sambal on the side.
NOTE: dried tangerine peel (陳皮) is called 'chenpi' in Mandarin, 'jan pei' in Cantonese, and 'tan peh' in Hokkien. It is often used for a hint of fragrance, and is considered beneficial to the digestion and the mucous membranes. Its use is not only culinary, but also medicinal, having a mild tonifying effect. In cooking it frequently shows up in duck dishes, as well as fatty pork stews, and soups.
Look for packages that promise 新會柑 ('Hsin-hui Tangerine', "san wui gam"), as even though the fruit is too sour to enjoy, these provide the very best dried peels. Unlike most other tangerine peel, it will be a blueish-green, sometimes verging towards brown, or even black.
Good peel keeps its fragrance for a very long time.
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