Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Spice-crusted salt pork Hakka style

Charcuterie is considered by most of us in the West as a European concept. When we think of such marvelous inventions as sausages, cured meats, salted pork, and brined bits of pig, we almost instinctively bring up images of foods from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Germany, as well as Eastern Europe and a couple other places where the art of charcuterie is honored and has been honed to shiny perfection. 

Asia is generally not thought of as a hot spot for preserved meats, but hidden away in China are some of the most mouth-watering preparations you've never seen.

And to those of you who love Chinese cuisine, this should come as no surprise, for her dried and preserved and brined and salted ingredients are what give these incomparable foods their uniquely Chinese flavor. For example, beans are salted and cured to make everything from fermented black beans (douchi) to yellow bean sauce (doujiang) to crispy bean sauce (dousu) to even soy sauce. 

Fresh pork belly
Vegetables are given a similar treatment to turn them into umami-rich condiments like "plum vegetable" (meicai) and Tianjin's garlicky "winter vegetable" (dongcai), their flavors now nowhere anything like that of fresh leafy veggies, but more like pickles adept at the art of subtlety and subterfuge.

Like so many of these vegetal creations, meats -- including just about everything that swims, crawls, or flies -- can count on some the folks in some corner of China eyeing it for possible preservation. Although these techniques were initially designed to carry people through the coldest months of winter, nowadays when refrigeration and freezers make this little more than a past concern, cured things serve more than ever as easy and delicious ways to add depth of flavor to just about any dish.

When I lived in Taipei, one of my favorite haunts for hunting down these ingredients was South Gate Market. It had everything: fresh fish and meats, counters full of vegetables and fruit, stalls filled with women busy making local foods, bins piled with candy and dried ingredients, and a special section that arrayed dried and cured animal parts. 

There really is no other way to describe it. These were animal parts in all their wondrous incarnations: split whole fish, strings of sausages, and smoky pork legs all held from the ceiling on long poles, especially in the weeks leading up to the Chinese New Year. Flattened dried octopus and squid were hung up in fantastical dioramas. Splayed chickens, ducks, geese, and even squab and quail hovered over the merchants like aromatic angels.

An array of seasonings for the meat
And the best part was that the making of these delicious ingredients called on traditions from all over China. Yes, Nanjing is known for its great salted ducks and Guangdong for its sweet pink sausages and Hunan for its smoky pork, but people from other areas arranged their families' specialties too around the edges of the market in anticipation of the steady stream of customers that packed the aisles.

Not everyone bought their charcuterie, though. Some, like my late father-in-law, who was Hakka Chinese, enjoyed making their own, which is perfectly reasonable since these meats are often quite easy to make, as with today's recipe.

Without a doubt the master of the family kitchen, Dad was a great cook and loved the things that reminded him of his ancestral home in rural Guangdong. He used to make cured meats and sausages when the family still lived in Taiwan, and this is very similar to one of his recipes. 

The meat has no saltpeter or curing salt in it, so it of course turns brown as it cures. The peppery crust, though, completely seasons the meat and seems to permeate every cell. This recipe will provide you with extra Ground Roasted Salt and Pepper, which you will soon find many uses for, as it is one of those seasoned salts that seem to complement just about every type of protein, including bean curd and eggs.

In the next post we will turn these beautiful cured pork strips into some divinely simple family dishes. Just like Dad's.

Seasoned salt rub 
Spice-crusted salt pork Hakka style  
Kejia xian zhurou 客家鹹豬肉  
Makes about 1 pound, plus an extra ¾ cup or so of the Ground Roasted Salt and Pepper mix

1 pound natural pork belly
3 tablespoons white liquor (gaoliang; see Tips)
4 tablespoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole white peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
½ teaspoon five spice powder
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
5 tablespoons sea salt
½ teaspoon sugar

1.  Rinse the meat and pat it dry. Cut it lengthwise into 3 or 4 long strips. (You can keep any skin on, if you want, as it will be removed before you cook the salt pork.) Rub every inch of the meat with the white liquor and let it marinate while you prepare step 2.

2. Dry fry all of the peppercorns, five spice powder, fennel, and salt (but not the sugar) over low heat until the peppercorns start to pop and the salt turns a darker color. Cool the seasoned salt and then grind finely. Mix about 3 tablespoons of the seasoned salt with the sugar, and then rub this mixture all over the pork strips so that every single area is thoroughly coated. (The rest of the seasoned salt should be sifted and all of the larger grains tossed out; store the fine salt in a covered jar, where it will stay fresh for weeks.)

3. Place the coated pork strips in a plastic container or resealable plastic bag along with any of the white liquor and seasonings that are still hanging around. Cover the container or close up the bag and refrigerate for at least 4 days. Shake the pork around twice a day so that each area of the meat gets evenly cured.

Roasted spices & salt
4. Try a piece to see if it is done to your liking by cutting off an inch and rinsing it thoroughly. Slice it thinly and fry without extra oil; it should have a wonderful aroma of spices and liquor, and you will not need to add any additional seasonings. If you want to let it get more infused with the flavors, leave it in the cure for another day or two. When it's just as you like it, pour off all of the juices and liquor, but don't rinse off the pork. Just remove the amount of pork that you want to cook and keep the rest refrigerated. It will stay perfect for at least a week.


As always, use the best natural pork available. The pork can come with skin or without, as it doesn't matter here.

Try to get pork that is half fat and half meat. In Chinese, pork belly is known as wuhuarou, or "five flower meat." What this means is that you should ideally have a nice layer of fat under the skin, then a layer of pink meat, then a layer of fat, then a layer of meat followed by a layer of fat. There might even be six layers if you are lucky, although four layers is fine, too. 

This layering in pork belly is what makes the cut so luscious when cooked right. As with Dongpo Pork, the fat acts as a buttery interlude between the thin layers of muscle, rendering them tender and juicy. 

The best white liquor for this and other cured meat recipes is, in my opinion, Taiwan's gaoliang liquor. The island of Kinmen (aka Jinmen) off the coast of Fujian is renowned for its gaoliang, and while it costs close to $30 for a bottle, it lasts a long time and possesses a wonderful fragrance.

Be sure and sift the leftover seasoned salt before you use it. Sichuan peppercorns, in particular, can be really annoying if left in largish pieces, as they become rock hard and end up feeling like sand between the teeth.


  1. Wow! My mom taught me how to make something very similar to this. Spices are a bit different but the general idea is the same. Do you have any other Hakka recipes? I recently visited the Hakka stronghold, Miaoli county, here in Taiwan and am now really interested in their cuisine. Thanks!

    1. And thank you too, Mike, for your very kind words! Is your mother Hakkanese?

      Yes, I've published two other Hakka recipes here and will be adding more: http://carolynjphillips.blogspot.com/2011/06/celebrate-dragon-boat-festival-with.html

      Let me know if you have anything special in mind, and I'll try to oblige.

      Have fun in Taiwan... I'm very jealous!

    2. As far as I know, my mom is Fujianese.

      Naw, nothing specific. I'm just super interested in the insane amount of preserved food I saw on display. They seem to eat an abundant amount of cured and/or dried food. Didn't spy many smoked items but maybe I didn't look closely enough.

    3. No, Hakka food is rarely smoked. But you're right, drying and salting is a big deal.

      Eat happy!

  2. Hi, Carolyn! I just have a question regarding step 4. What do you exactly mean by rinse? Also, when frying the cured pork, do you have any suggestions for how long and on what magnitude of heat? I just had some of this and it is amazing! I'm hoping to recreate this in the states once I get back. Thank you for sharing this recipe!

    1. Hi to you, Zero. And you're welcome!

      Just hold the pork under a running tap of cool water while you rub off the surface seasonings; this gets rid of the extra salt and the hard spices.

      As for frying it, everyone's stove is different, so I would suggest that you heat a dry frying pan (seasoned cast iron is the best) over medium heat until the bottom of the pan is hot but not smoking; just flick a few drops of water onto the pan, and they should immediately sizzle and disappear when the pan is hot enough.

      Place the slices of pork in the pan in a single layer and fry on one side until lightly browned, then flip them over and fry the other side. They should be perfect at that point.