I’ve always loved the gentle and bold flavors in Asian cuisine. One of the great things about my stints living in California was my access to so many international cuisines. Authentic Chinese food is one. Ramen and this pork are known as a Japanese dishes but according to many food historians, ramen actually is a Chinese dish introduced to Japan by Chinese tradesmen.
While living in Santa Cruz I found this great Chinese restaurant in the town over. You'd walk up to the modest, dingy, building and reach out for the oversized wood door handle. As you'd pull the door open your eyes had to adjust to the barely lit interior. As you'd look around you would notice that all the tables are floor to ceiling booths that look like tiny rooms. At first, my mind jumped to “ Oh Lord, is this a cover for one of those sex dens” or “maybe it’s one of those restaurants where crime bosses meet to exchange goods or plan their next heist”. Just as I am about to turn heel and leave before I become an unwilling participant in a threesome with some accountants who are looking for a good time, out of the shadows a waiter pops up in front of me. A man with a giant smile on his face asks me “table or to go?” He doesn't look he’s selling sex or trading arms so I say table. He seats me at the booth in the corner and asks “you have a friend?” "No just me," I respond. A look of pity comes over his face as he laid down the Chinese/English menu (a good sign of what was to come) and walked away. I wanted to run after him and explain that I do have friends, but I was hungry and found this place just driving around. I’m not sad and pitiful. I do have friends. I really do. Now even though all the waiters have name tags that say, Bob, Phil, Steve etc., the are definitely not Bobs, Phils, or Steves and English is not their first language. If I had run after them, explaining how I am not a rejected member of society I would just look like some crazy lady who they need to keep an eye on. And if their English was perfect I would look even crazier, so I settled down into reading the menu.
Bob (not Bob), came to take my order and I asked him which dishes are the spiciest. He pointed them out and informed me that it may too spicy for me. I insisted that I could handle it and he insisted that I couldn't. We had a Mexican Stand Off till Bob finally relented and put my order in. A little bit later out came Bob with a dish full of thin slices of pork in a glistening reddish-brown sauce with peppers strewn throughout. In the other hand was a sight I hope to see again - soft shell crabs in a fermented black bean sauce. Y’all when I say, order this when you see it, do it! Order more than one. Order one to go. Stuff crabs in your pocket so you can carry more home - it’s that good. As I started to dig into my spicy, porky, goodness I look up and there was Bob, Phil, and Steve staring at me like I had grown a third boob on my forehead. They were waiting for the train wreck. Too bad for them I ate and ate and ate that pork and crab till I couldn't physically fit no more. As Bob came to clear my plates he gave me a happy nod. That was it, Bob, Phil and Steve and I were fast friends. I became a regular and was blessed with beautiful dishes of food and Bob’s corny jokes.
One day I decided to share my lovely secret with a guy I was dating. He saw me order and informed Bob he would like the same. Bob explained to him that it’s extremely spicy and I quote “You can’t eat like the lady can”. Well, his emasculation alarms went off and he wasn’t wavering. I tried to explain it's not a gender thing, it’s upbringing thing. I grew up in a world of spicy food he grew up on timid Northern California fare. He wouldn’t listen so I thought, “Screw it. Make an ass out of yourself." One bite in he starts to get beads of sweat on his forehead. Two bites in he’s slowing resembling an overripe tomato. By his third bite, it was like all the fluids in his body were trying to escape. Tears streamed down his face, snot poured out his nose and the sweat - I don’t think there was one sweat gland that wasn’t working overtime. At this point, he had stopped eating and was breathing heavy and had a death grip on the table. Bob, Phil, and Steve rush over with bread and milk and swiftly remove his dish. I sat across from him, silently judging of course, as he slowly recovered from his pepper meltdown. As we were leaving, I turned around and to see Bob, Phil, and Steve looking and quietly laughing at us. Well, that was it folks - I broke up with him moments later. He brought shame upon me in front of Bob, Phil, and Steve. A girl has to have standards. And if it’s between you and Bob, Phil and Steve, I am choosing the one that brings me beautiful steaming plates of meats and sauces every time. Sadly, the last time I visited the area, the restaurant had been shuttered. According to the local rumor mill, turns out they were running arms through the restaurant. See y’all, sometimes my crazy isn’t crazy, I knew those booths were suspicious.
This pork belly is very simple and very good. I usually make this for Ramen Night but it's so good in so many different ways - on its own with some sautéed veggies or in your version of Bahn Mhi.
The ingredients are simple and straightforward. The only tip I can give is to find pork belly. Try your local Asian market. They almost always have it on hand and it is considerably cheaper than the bigger grocery stores.
Prep and cooking
First and foremost, truss your pork belly into a cylinder shape. I have done this so many times I can do it in one swift move. I am sure there is a Youtube video (like this one) that can show how to do this with one long piece of butcher twine. If you don’t feel like doing this, use smaller pieces and individually tie them around it, making sure to form a tight circle. Once your pork is done set aside.
Preheat the oven to 275.
In a large heavy skillet, heat 1 cup water, soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar, scallions, garlic, ginger, and the shallot in a medium saucepan over high heat, until boiling.
Remove from heat and add the pork belly. I won’t be submerged, that’s okay. Cover with a lid leaving it slightly ajar.
Transfer to oven and cook, turning pork occasionally, until pork is fully tender and a thin knife inserted into its center meets little resistance. 3 to 4 hours.
Transfer contents to a sealed container and refrigerate until completely cool. Please don’t skip this step it’s important. Reheat pork belly slices in soup broth with noodles and other garnishes. You can also heat it up with a little broth in a pan, crisp it up in a skillet, or eat it cold- it's that good.
* Save the sauce y’all we are going to marinate some soft boiled eggs.
2 one pound slab of boneless pork belly, skin-on
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 cup sake
1 cup mirin
1/2 cup sugar
6 scallions, roughly chopped
6 whole garlic cloves
1 two inch knob ginger, roughly sliced
1 whole shallot, split in half (skin on)
Lay pork belly on cutting board and roll up lengthwise, with skin facing out.
Using butchers twine, tightly secure pork belly at 3/4-inch intervals.
Preheat oven to 275°F. Heat 1 cup water, soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar, scallions, garlic, ginger, and shallot in a medium saucepan over high heat until boiling. Add pork belly (it won't be submerged). Cover with a lid left slightly ajar. Transfer to oven and cook, turning pork occasionally, until pork is fully tender and a cake tester or thin knife inserted into its center meets little resistance, 3 to 4 hours.Transfer contents to a sealed container and refrigerate until completely cool.
When ready to serve, remove pork belly and strain broth. Reserve broth for another use (like making ajitsuke tamago). Slice pork belly into thin rounds (it might help to cut it in half lengthwise first).
Reheat pork belly slices in soup broth with noodles and other garnishes. You can also heat up with a little broth in a pan, crisp it up in a skillet, or eat it cold it's that good.
*note you will see I doubled this recipe. I have a lot of lovable moochers to feed.
All thanks go to Chef J.Kenji Lopez-Alt from food lab for sharing this recipe.