If I were to think of a dish that is beloved yet poorly understood in Singapore, it would be kong bak bao. It really consists of two main components – fluffy steamed buns and tender pieces of pork belly stained almost black with soy. People tend to confuse kong bak with lor bak – I have eaten so many home-cooked versions of kong bak bao where what goes in the buns is lor bak passing off as kong bak. ‘Kong’ is a word unique to the Hokkien dialect, very similar to how ‘meh’ is derived from the Cantonese dialect. It means to cook something in a small amount of liquid, whereas ‘lor’ is a word used to describe braising, typically in a master stock. The pork belly that is cooked using the kong method tends to be more intensely flavoured and the resulting liquid hardly needs any reduction to be considered a sauce. Also, kong bak traditionally involves deep-frying of the rind before braising – this not only forms blisters that allow for more texture, but also adds more flavour to the dish. This step is truly for brave hearts only. After all this deep-frying that I do at home, the aggressive blistering of pork rind when it meets hot oil still makes me nervous, but a bite of the end result makes it all worth it!
Kong Bak Bao
For the pork:
1.5kg pork belly (if trimming for a neater appearance, use 1.8kg – 2kg pork belly)
5 ½ tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 teaspoons five spice powder
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 head garlic, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons honey
Chili sauce (blend chillies with vinegar and season with salt)
Bring a wok filled with water to a boil. Add your pork belly to the boiling water and boil, covered, for 45 minutes. Remove the pork belly from the wok with tongs and pat dry with kitchen towels. Poke the skin all over with a toothpick or fork then rub with ½ tablespoon dark soy sauce. Heat enough oil in a wok to come up to 1 inch high, then add the pork belly skin-side down. Immediately cover the wok and allow the pork to deep fry until handsomely brown and blistered. Place in a large bowl of water to allow the pork rind to soften and cool. Trim the pork belly, if desired, before slicing to 1.5-2cm thick slices, width about the size of the lotus buns. Mix the rest of the ingredients in a bowl and coat the pork belly well.
Transfer to a heatproof bowl, cover with foil or a plate, and steam for 4 hours on low heat. (Truth be told, I only steamed it for 2 hours and the pork was tender and juicy with a bite. I would have steamed it for 3 hours for a meltingly soft texture if I wasn’t rushing for time!) Serve with steamed lotus buns, a generous amount of coriander and chili sauce. This is a great make-ahead dish as the flavour vastly improves upon an overnight rest.