Monday, January 28, 2013

Crusty rice + Cantonese charcuterie = perfection

Cold weather brings out some of the best foods in the world, and this is especially true if you are a lover of pork. 

One dish that deserves to be categorized as perfect winter comfort food is this dish, a one-pot wonder that summons up all sorts of misty memories for me of huddling over a rickety table at the side of an alley, holding my frozen hands over the pulsating steam from my very own sandpot, and breathing in the aroma of the rice crackling and browning from the residual heat.

This is called làwèi fàn in Chinese, which literally means “charcuterie-flavored rice.” What a perfect name that is. And once you've come to know and love it, the main problem lies in finding someone who does it properly. You see, restaurants know that few people are willing to sit around for 25 minutes while a cheap meal is being made – they’re fidgety about their limited lunch break in any event – and so to keep people happy, the cooks tend to merely load up a small sandpot with steamed rice, layer some sliced charcuterie on top, cover it up, and then blast it with high heat to both melt the fat and crust up the bottom layer of rice. Which is okay, but it’s not nirvana in my book.

Ready for the steamer
No, to get the real effect of this wizardry, you will have to make it yourself. Understand, though, that it actually is super easy and only requires a bit of patience while it cooks away on the stove.

Before we get to that part, though, let’s take a look at what usually goes into this dish. Cantonese charcuterie is incredibly diverse, so you could find any number of good things in here, from salted duck or chicken to cured liver to feisty chunks of pink ham.

But I go for the classic combo: sweet pork sausages (what the Cantonese call lop cheong and everybody else refers to as làcháng  臘腸 ), duck liver sausages (yāgāncháng 鴨肝腸 ), and cured pork belly (referred to simply as charcuterie, or làròu  臘肉). Now is the time of year to hunt these down in your local Chinese market because they are never better than they are during this, the last month before Chinese New Year, which also happens to be called Làyuè 臘月 in Chinese. A coincidence? I think not.

Baby sandpot
Here then is my favorite recipe for a favorite dish. I have added extra fillips that season up the mix a bit more and make the rice a study in perfection: fresh Chinese black mushrooms, some white liquor, and a squirt of sesame oil toward the end to hasten up the browning. And now at last we get to the real reason for eating this dish, for it is all about the crunchy golden layer of rice at the bottom of the sandpot that fries up in the charcuterie drippings and that extra bump from the sesame oil.

This is definitely not a dish to get you ready for swimming suit season. But if you are more interested right now in hibernating in a big, warm chair than sweating off you winter layer of fat, lawei fan is just the thing to savor.

Crusty rice with charcuterie
Làwèi fàn  臘味飯
One serving
½ cup jasmine (aromatic long-grain) rice
1 lop cheong (sweet Cantonese sausage)
1 duck liver sausage
½ strip of cured pork belly
1 fresh (or plumped-up dried) Chinese black mushroom, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons (or so) finely shredded fresh ginger
1 tablespoon white liquor
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
1 cup filtered water
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1. Prepare a small covered sandpot, preferably one with a handle, by rinsing it out. Place the rice in a sieve and rinse it under cool tap water; let it drain while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Rinse the charcuterie and pat them dry with a paper towel. Cut both sausages on the deep diagonal into thin slices. Remove the skin from the pork belly and slice it deeply on the diagonal as well. Remove the stem from the mushroom and slice it into thin pieces.

With a side of greens
3. Place the rice in the sandpot and flatten it into an even layer. Place the meats and mushroom on top however you wish. Sprinkle the ginger on top and then pour in the white liquor, soy sauce, and water. Cover the sandpot and place it on the smaller one of your stove’s elements before turning on the heat (see Tips). Bring the water in the sandpot to a boil and then cover the sandpot and lower the heat to the lowest setting. Set the timer for around 17 minutes, and then peek inside the cover to make sure that the rice is fully cooked and the water has been absorbed.

4. Pour the sesame oil into the center of the sandpot and raise the heat to medium-high, but keep the cover on. At this point you have to rely on your ears and nose to tell you when the rice is done: Listen for the light crackling noises of the rice being fried to a crisp and keep your nose attuned to the smell of popcorn, which means that the rice has been toasted. At this point, check the bottom of the rice by removing the sandpot from the heat and using a wide spoon to lift up one edge of the rice; it should be a tasty brown color. If not, return it to the heat and keep watch. Serve the dish while still hot and crackling.


Crusty deliciousness
Do note that this recipe is for one serving, but it can be multiplied as wished. Just be sure to have a small covered sandpot for each person. Also, you will need a small stove burner for each sandpot, since large burners will not only focus much of their heat around the edge of the pot, but also make the sandpot too hot to touch.

If only have two small stove burners and you want to make more than two servings, prepare these extra sandpots ahead of time up to Step 3 and keep them hot in a warm oven. Then, just before serving, brown the bottoms as in Step 4.

Jasmine rice is the preferred variety here. It is not at all sticky and emits a delectable aroma as it cooks. Basmati could be used in a pinch, but it is looser in texture than jasmine rice.