Monday, May 2, 2011

Taiwanese braised pork over rice

The other day we were absolutely starved, and since the restaurant we normally patronize in a Chinese strip mall was still taking its afternoon siesta, we hunted around for something else to eat. The sign for one place looked promising: home-style Taiwanese food. Visions of the great street food we used to enjoy in Taipei danced in our head, and we were almost giddy at the thought of having some oyster rolls, fish ball soup, sesame oil chicken, and braised pork over rice.

Our hopes and ravenous taste buds were dashed with equal force when the waiter said that they didn't have any of those dishes, either on the menu or because they weren't in stock. The wall was plastered with handwritten signs for fried intestines, stinky tofu, and other delicacies, none of which particularly appealed to our short tempers and grumbling stomachs. So, we ordered a bunch of other items that were barely edible and not particularly memorable except for their extravagant prices.

And I started to wonder, why can't I get some of Taiwan's greatest street foods around here? There certainly are enough Taiwanese in the Bay Area to warrant a try, and I bet if any clever restaurateur put a good bowl of that porky manna from heaven called lurou fan before a homesick Taiwanese, he or she would have a customer for life.

See the secret to good hard-boiled eggs below
Utterly dissatisfied with my meal, but with my memories and appetite kicked into full gear, I went grocery shopping on my way home. 

Right after I walked in the door, I got out my wok and whipped up one of those staples of Taiwanese street food, the kind of food that grandmas used to have bubbling on the stove and sending out puffs of deliriously delicious fragrances out of apartment windows, one of those dishes that you swear you can smell in your dreams. 

The good thing is that it's not hard to make, it's great to have on hand, and anyone who likes pork and soy sauce will fall in love. As in the traditional recipes, the pork is served with a hard-boiled egg that has simmered in the pork sauce, as well as a bright round of Japanese pickled daikon. 

In our house, we have one person who will eat as many eggs as he can get away with. (One time I made a dozen eggs like these and came upon him in the kitchen happily polishing off egg #9.) I therefore make lots more eggs that these recipes usually call for. Feel free to double or triple the amount of hard-boiled eggs; your only limitation is the sauce that needs to cover them, and the recipe can be doubled or tripled, as well. I have some suggestions below on how to get your eggs to end up with a yolk that is balanced in the center, rather than clinging to one side and subjecting the white to tearing.

Frying shallots for a toasty flavor
There is also a recipe here for fried shallots, a prized seasoning in Taiwanese cooking. If you can, double the recipe and use the crispy little rings in your eggs, over noodles, on top of soups or even salads, and anywhere that could benefit from their subtle oniony punch and crunch. The oil the shallots were fried in is wonderful too, and is one of Chinese cuisine's traditional finishing oils, or mingyou, that are sprinkled over dishes to add a nice sheet and touch of flavor. Store this oil in the fridge, and keep a bit of it in a squirt bottle next to the stove.

Back to the star of the show, though. The resulting pork and sauce is served over a bowl of steaming rice with an egg (or three), a sprinkle of chopped cilantro, and a couple slices of that neon yellow Japanese daikon pickle known as takuan. This last fillip is probably a leftover from Taiwan's colonial days, when the Japanese ruled the roost. The politics of the matter aside, Japan left its cuisine behind in good hands, for this touch of color and piquant flavor is nothing less than perfect.

Eat it and weep... with delight.

Diced braised pork over rice
Lurou fan   滷肉飯  
Southern Fujian, Taiwan
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal

Fried shallots:
1 cup thinly-sliced shallots or small onions
2 cups fresh vegetable or peanut oil

Braised pork and eggs:
Fried shallots and mingyou
2 pounds fresh pork (try to get a ratio of two parts lean to one part fat)
½ cup garlic, chopped
½ cup shallots, chopped
The fried shallots (see above)
6 tablespoons peanut oil

Boiling filtered water as needed
6 to 8 hard-boiled eggs, peeled

4 tablespoon tasty peanut butter, chunky or smooth
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 star anise
½ teaspoon five spice powder
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
½ cup light soy sauce

¾ cup Taiwanese rice wine (Mijiu) 
Rock sugar to taste (or about the size of a walnut)
4 cups boiling filtered water

Final touches:
6 to 8 cups hot steamed rice
Pickled Japanese daikon (takuan), sliced

Chopped cilantro

1. Start this dish at least a day before you want to serve it. First make the fried shallots. Separate the sliced shallots (or onions) into rings so that they fry quickly and evenly. Heat the oil in a wok over medium high heat until a wooden or bamboo chopstick inserted into the oil is immediately covered with bubbles. Sprinkle in the shallots, reduce the heat to medium, and slowly fry them until they turn a golden brown, stirring often so that they do not burn or cook unevenly. Remove the fried shallots to a plate, strain the oil, and use that as a finishing oil, or mingyou, in other dishes.
Fried pork, garlic, and shallots

2. Blanch the pork for ten minutes and cut in small dice.  Fry the raw shallots and garlic in oil until light brown.  Add the pork and fry it until cooked it begins to brown; if you have pork skin in the mix, be sure to use a spatter shield or a lid over the pork while it is frying, since the pork skin is liable to explode and shoot all over.  Add the fried shallots and all of the sauce ingredients, topping it off with enough boiling water to cover.  Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, cover, and let it cook for about half an hour. 

3. Taste and adjust the flavor with salt, wine, and sugar as needed.  Add the eggs, bring the pot to a boil again, and then let it simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes.  Allow the sauce to come to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate overnight for best flavor.  Try to submerge the eggs so that they obtain an even golden color.

4. The next day or -- even better -- after a couple of days, scrape most of the fat off of the top (if you want) before bringing the pork and eggs to a boil again; reduce it to a gentle simmer and cook uncovered for about an hour, turning the eggs occasionally so that they tan evenly.  (If you cook the eggs with the cover on, they will get a honeycomb effect throughout the egg whites and will become tough.)  Remove the eggs from the sauce and bring the pork and sauce to a boil to reduce it to about ¼ to ½ cup.

5. To serve, place about a cup of hot steamed rice in a large soup bowl, and put an egg on top of the rice and a mound of the pork next to it along with a couple slices of pickled daikon.  Dribble a bit of the sauce over the pork and egg.  Throw some chopped cilantro on top and serve.

Perfect boiled eggs
VariationsThis pork is great on a variety of things, from fried eggplant to blanched bean sprouts to blanched Chinese chives.  Leftovers can be used to top a simple egg omelet, tossed with cooked eggplant, or ladled on top of a bowl of hot noodles soup.  Consider making a double amount of the pork and freezing it in 1-cup bags so that you can have lunch or dinner in the time it takes to boil your noodles.

Tip on making a balanced hard-boiled egg: This is one of those cooking secrets that sounds so obvious once you hear it. Just gently stir the eggs as they come to a boil, so that the raw yolk is moving around in the egg while the whites start to set up. Also, use medium heat rather than high heat to boil the eggs, which gives the eggs time to set up evenly.


  1. I first discovered this dish as a teenager in San Jose (CA), when someone started selling it outside Chinese School on Saturdays. Mmmm.