Monday, January 13, 2014


Over the past few weeks I've casually discussed Chinese food on this blog, and mentioned several tasty things of an odd nature. Odd, that is, to the ethnicities one might snidely call "uncomplicated-American".
Late yesterday I woke up with a start and realized that the one dish which is guaranteed to repel diet-conscious office types AND moronic football fans in equal measure is mui choi kau yuk; fatty pork and salt cabbage ("plum vegetable").

It is delicious, evocative of good things, home-style, and luxurious.
A necessary element in your life.

Fatty pork with salt cabbage.

One pound pork belly meat.
Quarter to half cup mui choi (梅菜), or slightly more.
Three cloves garlic, slivered.
Several slices of ginger, slivered.
Two TBS soy sauce, plus a little extra.
One TBS rice wine or sherry.
Half TBS sugar.
Small pinch five spice powder.

Coarsely chop the mui choi, then rinse it in a sieve to remove sand. Dump it in a bowl of cold water and let it soak for an hour. Drain, then rinse, drain and rinse again. This removes the salt used to preserve it.
Set it aside.

Wash the hunk of pork belly, pat it dry with a paper towel. Use a fork to pierce the skin, then rub it with a little extra soy sauce and the pinch of five spice powder, and set it aside for half an hour.

In skillet or wok sear the chunk of pork belly on the skin side till crispy-brown, then colour it all over in the hot grease that will have rendered. Remove pork from pan.
Drain most of the grease (which can be saved or discarded, as you choose), and parch the mui choi, adding the slivered ginger and garlic half-way through. The purpose is to concentrate flavours slightly, not to fully cook the vegetable matter at this stage.

Put the pork belly in a heavy enameled sauce pan OR a clay pot, distribute the mui choi around it, and add the two tablespoons of soy sauce, the sugar, and the sherry. Put it on heat, and when it reaches boiling temperature, cover it, slip a heat absorber underneath, lower the heat to barely alive, and let it gently cook for three or four hours till the pork is quite tender. Check it occasionally to avoid scorching, and to spoon some of the liquid over the meat. Add water if necessary.

When it is done, remove from heat, and cut the pork belly chunk into finger thick chopstickable slices -- this can be done while leaving it in the pot -- dump some chopped cilantro on top, and serve.

[A slightly different version of this dish is here: mui choi kau yuk.]

Fatty meat with cabbage is typically a winter delight, sure to please friends and family if they are sensible people, and quite utterly horrifying to most suburbanites.

So, to expand your repertoire with a dish in the same earthy vein, which is also superb and yummy, here's a recipe for a northern Chinese favourite which is nearly as popular among southerners nowadays.
Both dishes should be accompanied by rice.
Plenty of steamed rice.
And chili paste!

Sour cabbage and white-cooked pork.

One package of North-East style sour cabbage (東北酸菜).
Scant pound of fatty pork.
One or two enoki clumps, trimmed and sliced.
A small handful of dried tofu sticks.
Two TBS rice wine or sherry.
A few thick slices of ginger, slivered.
One or two garlic cloves, slivered.
Two chopped scallion.
Half TBS chili paste.
A pinch of five spice powder.
Drops of sesame oil.
Drops of tabasco.

Rinse and drain the sour cabbage, chop it coarsely. Scrub the lump of pork, brown it on the skin side to form a nice dark crust, then dump it in a pot of boiling lightly salted water along with some of the scallion and ginger, and simmer it for two hours. Take it out and let it cool.

Soak the tofu sticks till soft, drain, and cut into long chunks.

Heat a little oil in wok or skillet, gild the ginger and garlic to aromatize. Add the scallion, soon followed by the chili paste, then the rice wine or sherry to sizzle. Dump this into a roomy clay pot or enameled stew-pan, with the five spice powder. Add the tofu sticks, cut enoki, and the cabbage, with water to cover and a splash of the pork simmering liquid.
Cook for about ten minutes.

Slice the now cooled and fully cooked pork into thickish slices, add to the pot, with more liquid; the soupiness of the dish will be part of the pleasure. Cook another five or ten minutes.

Dash in a little sesame oil and tabasco, cilantro on top, and serve.


Pork belly, or 'fatty pork', is usually called ng-faa naam (五花腩 five flower pork brisket) in Chinese markets. The layers of intense fat and reddish lean meat alternate beautifully, and you should select what suits you. Bear in mind that there is supposed to be a balance, which is what makes it so versatile and delicious.

Plum vegetable (梅菜 'mui choi') is a small brassica preserved with salt.
I usually buy the canned version.

Five spice powder (五香粉 'ng heung fan') is made of star-anise (八角 'baat gok'), fennel seed (小茴香 'siu wui heung'), cassia bark (肉桂、玉桂 'yuk gwai'), fagara pepper corns (花椒 'faa chiu'), and cloves (丁香 'ding heung').

Enoki (金針菇 'gam jam gu') are thin pale yellow mushrooms that are sold in lumps growing from a single spore-clump. You don't need much in 酸菜白肉 as they are included merely for a bit of contrast. Wash them first, trim off the base, and just dump them in.

Dried tofu sticks (腐竹 'fu juk') are strips of the congealed skin that results when boiling soy milk, collected and hung up to dry. This product absorbs flavours most marvelously, is highly nutritious, and adds a very enjoyable textural element to stews.

Sour cabbage (酸菜 'suen choi') is a common type of pickled cabbage, tangy and slightly sour. After a brief blanching, the halved or quartered vegetable is packed into brine with a weight on top and left to ferment for at least three weeks. It can be eaten raw but is usually combined with fatty meats, which is a particularly good combination; the two items balance each other.
Available in vacuum sealed packs of around a pound, also larger packs of a kilo. Buy the smaller packs -- 200 grammes to 300 grammes.
North-Eastern style sour cabbage (東北酸菜 'tung paak suen choi') is stronger in taste, and has some chili added for oomph.

Sambal, or chili paste (辣椒醬 'laat chiu jeung') is the one indispensable substance that you should have on hand at all times. Mashed hot peppers with a little salt, maybe a touch of vinegar or lime juice added. Rather than making it yourself, simply purchase a jar of it in C'town or the Tenderloin, and stick it in your refrigerator. It is surprising how fast it disappears;
I think the raccoons are stealing it.

If you plan on visiting England it might be wise to actually make some of it yourself to pack in your carry-on luggage: fresh habaneros, ground toasted dried Thai birdseyes or chile d'arbol for a bit of bulk, salt, vinegar, and oil. The last three in equal measure, just enough to make it smooee, but not gloppy. The salt and vinegar will preserve it for at least several weeks, and the inclusion of habanero makes it hot enough that your hosts may not even notice that you slipped a tiny little smear onto your plate to assist you in downing their fine cuisine.

慢慢食 ('maan maan sik': bon gusto).

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