"Streaky pork." "Fatty pork." "Streaky bacon." "Bacon." I've seen pork belly described using any number of (often unappetizing) terms on Sichuan menus. It's probably just as well that these ominous depictions are sending up red flags, because the unsuspecting customer who is expecting some dry, boring morsels of pork loin might be surprised when they get a plate full of belly.
That surprised person was me about 12 years ago at Grand Sichuan on 2nd Ave and 50-something in NYC. A friend and I were having one of our standard blow-out lunches, and we ordered a pork dish. When it hit the table, we were beside ourselves. "Good God, it's a plate full of bacon!" was our reaction. We laughed about it, but enjoyed the dish as much as we could, along with the three other dishes that we ordered.
We'd continue to bring up the absurdity of that dish over the next few years, half disgusted as we recalled that plate of "bacon." And then one day it occurred to me that this plate full of fatty, luscious pork belly was actually a beautiful thing. One to be admired, not ridiculed. I'm not sure when I experienced this life-changing epiphany, but since then I've been a huge fan of any of the Sichuan dishes that use pork belly. And there are many.
One of those dishes is a standard restaurant order for us. And now, with the help of Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan cookbook Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking , it's a standard at t:e headquarters. In her book, it's called "salt-fried pork." It consists of pork belly and leeks. Lots of leeks, when I cook it. And, as it turns out, black beans and chili bean sauce, and not much else.
As with much of the Chinese food I've been cooking, it's dead simple. The fact of the matter is that you've got some incredibly flavorful ingredients doing all of the work. All you have to do is mix them together and not screw it up. No problem.
The dish is immensely addictive, and packed with intense flavors. It's a bit spicy, a bit sweet, with a somewhat salty backbone. And it's even better as left-overs the next day.
Since I don't strictly follow Ms. Dunlop's recipe, I'll go with the "adapted from" approach here (that's what you do when you want to steal someone's recipe and post it on your blog--you say "adapted from" to make yourself feel better--like I just did):
3/4 pound skinless pork belly
3 leeks, white and tender green parts, sliced on the bias
2 T Sichuanese chili bean sauce (toban djan)
2 T fermented black beans
1.5 T light Chinese soy sauce
1/2 t sugar
- Put the pork in the freezer to firm it up so you can slice it into thin slices.
- Heat up your wok and add the peanut oil. Throw in the pork slices and cook for a few minutes. The pork will give up some water and then it will quiet down.
- Add a pinch of salt.
- Create a spot in the wok for the chili bean sauce and black beans. Throw them in, and after about 30 seconds the oil will be red and fragrant. That's where some magic shit happens. Mix the pork with the oil.
- Add the soy sauce and sugar and throw in the leeks. Toss until the leeks are just cooked.
- Check for salt. To my mind, this dish should be a bit salty.
Finding the stuff:
Pork belly: I urge you to not use pork loin for this dish. I added pork loin one time, as I didn't have enough belly (words that don't usually cross my lips), and those pieces were dry and unexceptional. Here in NJ, and elsewhere I suspect, Whole Foods carries pork belly, as do Asian markets (see a partial list of Asian type markets below). In a pinch you might consider "country style" ribs, which have a good amount of fat.
Fermented black beans: You really can't substitute black bean paste. Well, you can, but why bother when you can order the fermented black beans from amazon.com.
Light soy sauce: Don't use Japanese soy sauce for Chinese cooking. I think you're better off finding some Pearl River Bridge brand Chinese soy sauce. It's available at Asian markets!
Some sources for Asian ingredients:
Terri Lee: Maywood, NJ
H-mart: Multiple locations
555 Food Market: Jersey City, NJ
King Fung: River Edge, NJ
Kam Man: Multiple locations
Asian Food Markets: Multiple locations
Top Quality Food Market: Parsippany, NJ
You should make this dish and tell me what a great job you did.