One of the biggest blessings in life is having friends who cook for you. I have many friends who have gifted me baked good in the form of cookies or brownies, but having people cook proper meals for you – that is a different story. You actually feel nourished by both the food and the gesture of hospitality.
The middle of last year, my first cookbook was launched in Singapore, and the entire trip home was a flurry of interviews, book events and social gatherings. By the time we got back to Melbourne, I was exhausted and craving some nourishing fare. It was pure serendipity that one of our friends, Fred, was passing by our place and wanted to drop off some food that his wife Anna had prepared.
Amongst the takeaways of classic Cantonese soups, braised cabbage rolls and rendang lay a container of a dark, murky braise of pork belly. The sauce had been thoroughly infused with the oceanic flavour of dried scallops and sea cucumber and was a delight drenched over rice. But the true star that stole the show was the pork.
One thing’s for sure. This was not your standard melt-in-your-mouth, cut-with-a-spoon braised pork. No, this was different. The skin was not smooth in the way pork skin would be when cooked over gentle fire. It had a curious, spongy texture that soaked up the sauce, the way tofu puffs or tau kwa do when they are served in a bowl of laksa. Beyond having taken on the flavour of the sauce, the skin had a rich flavour of its own. It was a true revelation.
Eager to find out as much as I could, I asked Anna about the dish the next time I met the couple. Like any self-respecting cook who takes pride in her food, she told me that the pork belly that she had used was roast pork that she had prepared in her own kitchen.
I was flabbergasted. This goes against everything a regular cook would do. Who would roast a piece of pork belly till crisp, only to braise it in liquid and render it soggy? Still, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. And had I not been the very happy and grateful recipient of her pork belly dish that day, I would have been extremely sceptical about this method.
The flavour memory of this dish lingered in my mind until Chinese New Year came along. One of my favourite dishes that inevitably appears on my maternal extended family’s table every year is ho see fatt choy, a stew of dried oysters and hair moss. Dried oysters are hard to source in Melbourne, but the flavour memory of the dish reminded me of Anna’s pork belly, so I set out to make that instead.
I bought some pork belly from the butcher’s and started preheating my oven. After two hours of roasting, the pork was ready, its rind having blistered into a puffy sheet. I sneaked a few slices for dinner and saved the rest for our reunion dinner feast the next day. Fully chilled after a night’s rest in the fridge, the pork belly sliced easily into neat cubes. It was already cooked and tender so it only needed a short braise in a soy-based stock, flavoured with dried mushrooms, dried scallops and, to gild the lily, the juices from a can of braised abalone.
Later, it occurred to me that many of my favourite pork belly dishes out there include a pre-treatment before braising or steaming, the traditional ones at least. Mui choy kong bak calls for a quick deep-fry of the marinated pork before the braise. Hakka pork belly and taro is best done when a deep-fried slab of pork belly is soaked in water, sliced, then steamed in bowls. Some of my Hakka friends even tell me that their families buy roast pork belly from hawkers when they are too time-pressed to do the deep-frying themselves!
The dish was as good as I remembered. The porous rind had now turned into the perfect sponge for the rich braising liquid, and the process of roasting had rendered the pork of its excess fat, leaving a braise that tasted clean and not at all greasy. What seemed so contrary to every rule in Western meat cookery – to crisp pork skin only to soak it in liquid – now made complete sense.
Like all slow-cooked dishes, it only got better with age, and we contentedly enjoyed it over rice throughout the Chinese New Year festive period. Though it takes more work to rustle up than your average dinner, I can easily see this becoming a staple at ours every year. And besides, now that I know about this trick, I know what I am going to do the next time I have leftover roast pork in my kitchen.
Braised Pork Belly with Fatt Choy & Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
50g dried scallops, soaked in hot water
100g dried shiitake mushrooms, preferably small ones, soaked in hot water
80g light soy sauce
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce or cooking caramel
450g leftover roast pork belly, cut into 3-4cm cubes
1 teaspoon sesame oil
20g hairmoss (fatt choy)
3 tablespoons cornflour
When the dried mushrooms have fully softened and have cooled enough to be handled, snip the tough stems off with scissors and discard. Combine the scallops, mushrooms and their soaking liquids in a pot. Bring to a boil.
Add dark soy sauce, roast pork belly cubes and sesame oil. Top up with enough water to cover everything. Bring to a boil and allow to simmer for 15 minutes, or until the pork is completely heated through.
Briefly rinse the hairmoss before ripping it roughly into the pot.
Dissolve the cornflour in a small amount of flour. Add it in gradually, stirring constantly, till the braising liquid thickens to form a thick gravy.
Serve with lots of blanched vegetables (bok choy or broccoli is best) and steamed rice.