Monday, August 31, 2015

Fresh guanciale, Yunnan style

This was our favorite thing to order at the traditional Yunnan-style restaurant called Yúnnán Rénhéyuán 雲南仁和園 in downtown Taipei. Back in the day, we would be served shards of the entire boned pig’s head: face, snout, jowls, ears, and tongue. I prefer, however, to make it just with the meaty jowls — i.e., cheeks. 

The jowl is slowly simmered in a richly seasoned liquid that permeates every cell, and it’s already so flavorful that you really don’t need a highly seasoned sauce, but even so, I would never serve this dish without it. The chilies, garlic, vinegar, green onions, soy sauce, and sesame oil come together to bathe each slice with an aromatic sheen that stuns the taste buds a bit as they hit the tongue, and then they subside just as the teeth release those herby, porky flavors hidden in each satiny slice.
Make razor-thin slices

A direct translation of the Chinese name, “big thin slices,” dabaopian is a study in the Chinese ideal of yóu ér búnì 油而不膩,  which means “buttery but not greasy.” This means that the pork has a silky, creamy texture that does not leave a layer of fat in your mouth. And considering that this cut of meat is pretty much the equivalent of fresh bacon, that is nothing short of amazing.

Pig jowls come pre-cleaned, which saves you a lot of hassle, and they are the tastiest part of the head. The jowls look for all the world like a nice piece of pork belly: a thick cut of meat interwoven with white fat, and a good layer of skin on top. Most Chinese places treat the jowls like fresh bacon (the Italians do the same thing when making guanciale). In fact, you can even consider substituting pork jowl for pork belly in other recipes. It is generally cheaper than most cuts of pork because most people here are just not familiar with it. For that reason, a good butcher might often carry it after a whole hog has been butchered, or they might accept special orders (see the Tips), but most supermarkets won’t.

A two-pound cheek will not look all that big, but something happens as it cooks: the cells swell up, and you are left with a really luscious pillow after a couple of hours. Chill the pork overnight and be sure and strain the liquid, for it makes an excellent stock.
A fresh pig jowl - yum!

Another thing I’d recommend is that you make this dish only for adults – the reason is that dabaopian is definitely bar food of the highest order. Like so many of China’s rich meat dishes, dabaopian demands the accompaniment of a drink that can hold its own against the rich flavors and fermented seasonings in the sauce. Be certain to serve this alongside something alcoholic - be it rice wine, white liquor, or even whiskey or scotch - but I wouldn’t recommend things like grape wines or even chilled beer.

Instead, this needs the lush aromas of a hearty grain-based brew, preferably at room temperature for the white liquor and those Western brews, or even hotter for the rice wine. Both Maotai (from Guizhou) and Gaoliang (from Kinmen in Taiwan) would be good here. Warmth is necessary to keep the mouth at body temperature or higher, which prevents the fats from seizing up and turning your tongue into a coated gym sock. The esters in the white liquor then work with the savory aromas to turn this into a serious source of dining pleasure.

Big thin slices of a pig’s head
Dàbáopiàn 大薄片
Serves 8 to 12 as an appetizer

1 (2 pounds, or so) pig jowl (a/k/a cheek), with the skin attached
Water, as needed
¼ cup white liquor
4 green onions, trimmed
¼ cup thinly sliced ginger
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
1½ teaspoons fennel seeds

1 to 2 red jalapeño peppers
3 green onions, trimmed
6 cloves garlic, peeled
6 tablespoons regular soy sauce
6 tablespoons black vinegar
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1. Start this at least a day before you plan to serve it. Rinse the jowl and pat it dry. If there are hairs still poking out of the skin, don’t worry about them, since they can be easily dealt with once the pork skin has been cooked. Place the jowl in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil and simmer for about 10 minutes, then dump out the water and scum, rinse the jowl and saucepan, and return the jowl to the saucepan. Add the white liquor, green onions, ginger, and salt to the pork. If you want, enclose the Sichuan peppercorns and fennel in either some cheesecloth or a mesh ball and toss this in the pot, or else let them roam free with the other seasonings. Bring the water to a boil, lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook the jowl for around 3 hours uncovered, adding more water as necessary. Check to see if the jowl is done by poking a chopstick through the thickest part — it should offer absolutely no resistance, but the meat and skin should not be falling apart, either. Let the meat cool in the broth and then remove the jowl to a clean covered container. Refrigerate it overnight and up to a couple of days. The broth can be strained and used for something else, while the solids should be discarded.
Ready for the pot

2. Before you do anything else, pull out any hairs you find in the skin at this point, since they will be easy to remove with either tweezers or a paring knife. Once that is done, cut the jowl against the grain into very long, thin slices while it is still chilled and easy to handle, arrange it on a platter, and then let the meat and silky fat come to room temperature before serving.

3. While the jowl is slowly warming up, prepare the sauce: Stem and seed as many peppers as you like and cut them into tiny dice. Chop the onions and garlic into a fine mince, as well, and place all of these aromatics into a small work bowl. Stir in the soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil. Adjust seasoning and then either serve the sauce alongside the meat, or pour it over the room temperature slices right before serving.


Pork jowls are not always available in Western butcher shops. I therefore ask my butcher to set them aside for me when they bring in a whole hog.

The white liquor, ginger, and spices work to tame the natural gaminess of the jowls. What you should end up with is a mildly flavored meat.

As with French headcheese, this dish benefits from a tart, aromatic sauce. The chili peppers can be as hot as you like, and you can use a chili sauce, if you prefer. I’d caution against adding sugar to the sauce.

You can, of course, use a whole boned pig’s head here. But make sure you multiply the recipe ingredients by 3, because you will have around 7 pounds of pork to contend with.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Chinese rice wines: what's what?

Rice wines are as much a part of China’s food culture as tea, and this is truer of the Yangtze River area than just about anywhere else. Jiangsu and Zhejiang in particular enjoy an historic reputation for the exceptional quality of their wines. In fact, this region is a bit like the Loire Valley in France when it comes to discussions of a wine-based food culture, as countless dishes have been designed to complement wine and also incorporate it as a main component in the seasoning.

Inexpensive yet good Shaoxing wines
The rice wines here tend to be amber-colored, and so they are collectively referred to as “yellow wine” (huángjĭu 黃酒). Shaoxing rice wine (Shàoxīng jĭu 紹興酒), which is often specified as an ingredient in this blog and in my upcoming cookbook, ALL UNDER HEAVEN, is named after the town in Zhejiang where it is produced. The other two that must be mentioned are huadiao and cooking wine. Huādiāo 花雕 literally means “carved” and is a Shaoxing varietal.

The other main types of rice wine are mĭjĭu 米酒, which is referred to in this blog as a “mild rice wine,” as it has the most subtle flavor and is closest of the Chinese wines to Japanese sake. Very similar to that is the general category known as cooking wine (liàojĭu 料酒), which usually is of lesser quality than the wines destined for drinking; it often has a bit of salt added to deter its direct consumption, and a good example of this is Taiwanese Mijiu (or "Cooking Michiu," as it says on the label.

My preferred cooking wine
Like their Western counterparts, the best Chinese rice wines can range in sweetness from dry or brut (gān ) to syrupy elixers (nóngtián 濃甜) that pair well with dessert. The colors likewise can be anywhere from clear to a deep brown hue. All are non-distilled and made mainly from rice, of course, and they rely on the same happy bundling of yeast, molds, and bacteria that are called upon for Fermented Rice.

Connoisseurs often debate the proper pairing of wines with foods here with the same vociferousness that can be found in the West. And although Western-style grape wines are increasing in popularity and hearty red ones in particular are sometimes served with the foods of China, one must choose carefully to find a good match. 

Warm your rice wine before imbibing
Wine expert Gerald Asher has suggested varietals that can echo the attributes of Chinese rice wine, such as a vin jaune fino Sherry and other madeirized wines like Manzanilla, Tokaji, or Hungarian Furmint, because these, as Mr. Asher noted, are “not fruity in the way that, say, a Riesling is or a Chardonnay is... and would not overwhelm even the most subtle flavor of a Chinese dish.”

But then again, as with so many things having to do with fine dining, the most important factor is what tastes best to you. And if wine of any stripe does not suit your fancy, beer goes admirably with most of China’s savory foods, while tea is the perfect after-dinner refreshment.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Smoky mackerels from Shanghai

Shanghai and the surrounding provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang are famed for their appetizers and cold dishes, the things that are offered at lunch, as bar snacks, and as delicious appetizers. One of the most famous of these is pomfret cooked in a method very similar to what we have here, and a recipe for this can also be found in my upcoming cookbook, All Under Heaven.

Mackerel is fantastic here, too... and maybe even more perfect than pomfret, as it is an oily fish with a dynamic flavor that can stand up to being marinated, deep-fried, and then tossed around in a powerfully seasoned sauce. Make sure that the sauce is over-seasoned so that the flavors still pop when the fish is served cold.

Five-spice “smoked” mackerel
Wǔxiāng xūn qīngyú  五香薰鯖魚
Serves 4 to 6

Fish and marinade:
1 to 1½ pounds mackerel filets (about 3)
1 tablespoon grated ginger
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine

2 cups peanut or vegetable oil (used okay if it smells fresh)

¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce1 tablespoon rock sugar (more or less)
1 tablespoon black vinegar
½ cup water
2 teaspoons five-spice powder
6 thin slices ginger
2 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths

Cilantro or other greens, as needed
1 green onion, trimmed and sliced in to thin shards

1. Start this at least a day before serving. Rinse the mackerel, pat it dry, but don’t slash the sides, as the fish will “bloom” in the hot oil as it cooks, which means that the flesh will separate into flakes that are held together by the skin and bones. You can keep the backbone in the fish, if there is one, as this is easy to remove once the fish is cooked. Place the fish in a work bowl, toss with the marinade, and refrigerate for at least one hour and up to a full day, as this helps to mellow out the flavors.
Marinate the fish

2. Set a wok with the oil over medium heat. Pat the fish dry with paper towels and fry the fish in batches — only 2 filets fit in my wok at a time, and you don’t want to crowd them. Fry the fish until nice and brown all over, shaking the wok to loosen the skin from the metal, and then gently turning the fish over a couple of times to cook it evenly. Remove the fish to a work bowl as it is browned and repeat with the rest of the fish until all are ready.

3. While the fish is frying, simmer the sauce ingredients together in a small pan. When the sauce and solids have reduced to around a cup, taste and adjust the seasoning (see the headnotes). Pour the sauce over the cooked fish and turn them over so that the flesh side sits in the sauce. When the bowl has cooled to room temperature, cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours, and turn the fish over in the sauce whenever you think of it so that every piece gets bathed in those delicious flavors.

4. To serve, pick out as many bones as you can easily see and then slice each cold filet on a deep diagonal into around 5 to 6 pieces. Arrange the fish on cilantro or other greens, drizzle the strained sauce over the top, and garnish with the green onion. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Too hot out: pass the cold watermelon soup, please

When we enjoy watermelon in the States, it usually is as a cold slice on a hot day. Once in a while we might get real fancy and cut it up into a fruit salad or some Jello, or even toss it into a smoothie, but that’s about as far as we go.

In China, though, watermelon takes on all sorts of interesting guises. Some are strangely delicious, such as Manchuria’s chicken soup with watermelon, but my favorite has to be this traditional summer cooler from the nation’s capital, Beijing.

The Chinese name basically means “watermelon cream” because the melon’s juice is thickened to the consistency of, well, cream. Nowadays most online and cookbook recipes - including one I published a long time ago - will call for mixing sweetened watermelon juice with gelatin, which of course gives you watermelon gelatin, and that does not really excite me. I wanted the same thing I’d enjoyed back in Taiwan at some of the more old-fashioned Beijing restaurants and tea shops.

My criteria for this recipe were four-fold: that the watermelon juice not be cooked, it couldn’t be too sweet and drown out the natural flavor of the melon, it had to feel creamy in the mouth and silky going down the throat, and it had to be thickened with something traditionally Chinese in order to get that all-important texture.

And so, I winged it. The results are fabulous.

Get yourself a really good melon to start with. It has to be full of flavor, or else you will just end up with bland soup. But a beautiful red one for the most visual punch, and be sure to opt for seedless unless you are a masochist and don’t mind spending a lovely summer day picking seeds out of your melon. If you’re not sure how good the melons are, ask for a sample and ask the grocer or farmer to pick out a really good one.
Secret weapon: water chestnut flour

My rules for selecting melons are to first pick it up – it should be heavy for its size, which tells you it’s full of juice. The stem end should have no stem attached, but rather have a small concave place where the stem used to be, which means that the melon was picked when it was ripe. Third, thump the melon with your fingertips: it should have a sharp ping echoing though it. A deep, dull sound tells you that the melon is overripe and sandy in texture, while a really high thump lets you know that there isn’t much juice in there.

In the end, buying a watermelon is a bit of a crapshoot while you’re still on a learning curve. But take heart: If you end up with a boring melon, you can always throw it into some Jello.

Cold watermelon soup
Xīguā lào 西瓜酪
About 10 cups

4 cups cool water, divided in half
½ cup Chinese pearl tapioca
1 piece rock sugar, about the size of an egg
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons water chestnut flour
¼ cup cool water
6 cups pureed red, ripe, delicious watermelon
Osmanthus syrup or local honey to taste
Ice cubes, optional
Mint leaves, optional

1. Bring 2 cups water to a full boil in a large saucepan and stir in the tapioca with a balloon whisk. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook the tapioca, stirring frequently with the whisk, until the pearls are almost translucent. Add the sugar and salt. Stir in the other two cups of cool water to shock the tapioca, and then carefully bring the tapioca to a boil once again, stirring often to keep the pearls from clumping up and burning.

Tapioca, sugar, & flour slurry
2. Whirl the chestnut flour in a blender to break down all of the lumps. Pour in the ¼ cup water to create a thin slurry and stir that into the tapioca. Cook the tapioca over low heat until the liquid turns translucent once again. Remove the pan from the heat.

3. Stir the watermelon into the tapioca. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more sugar, if desired. Chill the soup for a couple of hours. Pour it into individual soup bowls and garnish with a swirl of osmanthus syrup or honey. Top each serving with an ice cube and a mint leaf on really hot days.


To puree the watermelon, cut it the flesh into chunks. Add about a cup of the chunks to your blender and start to blend on low while carefully pushing down on the chunks with a silicon spatula – you want to avoid the blades, so press lightly. Once this batch of watermelon has liquefied, add another cup of the melon and puree again. You then can add the rest.

If you have seeds in the melon despite your best efforts, puree the melon lightly so that you don’t pulverize the seeds and then strain the juice before using.