Thursday, January 17, 2013

The post where a pork shank ascends to heaven

This luscious mound of boneless pork defies you to find the least bit of grease in it. Like all other great variations on braised pork shank that Chinese people have reveled in over the ages, this is a study in reductions: The fat and skin are reduced to quivering layers of jelly that disappear on the tongue. The tendons are reduced to barely gummy layers between the pillowy meat. And the sauce is reduced to a delectable syrup that clings to every cranny.

Popular throughout Shandong and Beijing, for the longest time the pinnacle of braised pork came from an old Beijing restaurant that has been around in many incarnations for a long time: Tianfuhao. As with so many of China’s legendary dishes, what is sold in this store today does not match its fame, but a story is attached that explains the shop’s long existence…

A young man from Shandong named Liu Fengxiang arrived in the capital and found himself at a small shop in the Xidan district run by a man from Shanxi. It sold pork braised in the northern manner, and Liu was hired to help out. However, business was never any good, as it was very small with few customers, so the man from Shanxi left for good, leaving Liu to run the place by himself.

Massage honey onto the skin
Later on, Liu was purchasing some supplies at the market when he happened to see an old store sign in an antiques shop. On it were three characters – tiān fú hào 天福號, or the shop blessed by Heaven – written in the powerful calligraphic style of Yan Zhenqing, so he bought it for his own place and changed the name of his store to Tianfuhao. Lo and behold, it was as if the old sign did indeed bring divine blessings with it, for passers-by recognized the stunning calligraphy and must have felt that this was a place with both history and status, so business improved dramatically.

As with any other shop of this kind where food has to be both made and sold by a skeleton crew, the pork was cooked at night so that there would be something to sell the next day. One night, Liu’s son was tending the stove, and he fell asleep while the pork shanks were bubbling away on the stove. When he woke up, the meat was just on the verge of falling apart, so his father salvaged the pork the best he could and readied it for the day’s customers.

It so happened that a high-ranking official in the corrections ministry passed by and bought one of those overcooked shanks to dine on that night. But instead finding complaint with the meat, the great man enjoyed its supreme tenderness and the way that the fat had left only a gentle robe of moistness around the trembling pork. The next day, he returned for more, praising Tianfuhao’s product to the skies.

The Liu family improved upon the recipe using this newfound knowledge until they felt it was at last perfect. And then one evening, just as they were about to close, that same official rushed in and told Liu Fengxiang that he had to make the best shank of his life that night because the official was going to present it to the Dowager Empress the next day. Elated and terrified, Liu knew that if she were to take a liking to his pork shank, his fame would be secured, so he made an array of his most famous dish that he tweaked as he went, so that he would have a variety to choose from in the morning.

Browned from honey & frying
Palace eunuchs appeared before noon, and Liu presented them with his carefully prepared pork shanks for the Dowager Empress’s lunch. Her response was to send some people to Tianfuhao that afternoon with a request for him to deliver more directly to the Forbidden City. And later on the old lady granted Tianfuhao with a warrant to supply its meats to the imperial household on a daily basis, a blessing indeed from on high.

Nowadays, Tianfuhao sells only braised pork shanks that are cooked in large vats, not slowly steamed in a slightly sweet sauce. It is that slow steaming that makes all the difference in the world, as it completely changes the texture of the pork. The meat gradually absorbs the layers of spice and caramel and wine, becoming a savory sponge offering little resistance to the teeth. Pork shanks are full of long tendons, but when cooked this way, they too dissolve into soft suggestions against the tender meat.

But it is the skin that is a revelation, for steaming allows it to render almost all of its fat while preserving its shape, and so you are left with a pillowy puddle that melts on the tongue and seems somehow many levels removed beyond merely sinful, a sort of glimpse at sensual nirvana.

Why do I go on and on about Tianfuhao here? It's because I served this shank the other day to some friends from Beijing, and they became positively rapturous about that heavenly little mound of meat, immediately recognizing it as being in the old style of Tianfuhao. We laughed as we dug in, shoving slithering slivers of juicy meat and pillowy skin into our mouths between sips of warm huadiao rice wine, enjoying one of the supreme pleasures of North China's many fabulous cuisines, a dish that makes me look forward to cold weather outside and the joy of having a handful of friends inside gathered around my dining table. 

Ready for the steamer

Rock sugar pork shank 
Bīngtáng zhǒuzi  冰糖肘子 
Serves 4 to 6

1 pork shank (about 3 pounds with bone in and skin on, see Tips)
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 stick cinnamon
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 inches fresh ginger, smashed with a cleaver
2 green onions, trimmed and lightly smashed
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
Filtered water as needed
1 tablespoon honey
½ to 1 cup frying oil
2 tablespoons rock sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons filtered water
2 to 3 green onions, trimmed and cut into thin julienne, as garnish

The bone & the boned
1. Start this at least 2 and preferably 3 or more days before serving. Rinse the pork shank and pat dry, but leave the skin on, as this will be intensely delicious by the end of the recipe. Use tweezers to remove any hairs; a chef’s blowtorch is useful for burning off anything that is stubborn. There are two ways to proceed with the bone: You can either leave the bone on the shank and remove the bone in Step 3, or you can use a thin boning knife to remove the bone from the raw meat. Place the shank in a medium saucepan and cover it with boiling water. Bring the water to a boil over high heat and then lower it to a simmer; cook the shank for about 10 minutes, dump out the water and scum, and rinse the shank thoroughly. Rinse out the saucepan well and place the shank back in there.

2. Cover the pork with enough boiling water so that it is submerged by at least an inch. Bring the pan to a boil over high heat and then reduce it to a simmer. Slowly cook the shank uncovered for about 1½ hours, adding more boiling water as necessary, at which point the pork should be tender and there should be a layer of fat on top of the liquid.

3. Turn off the heat and carefully remove the pork from the liquid; set it aside on a plate to cool down until it is easy to handle. At that point, if the bone is still in the meat, twist it until it comes loose and then pull it out; discard the bone. Defat the braising liquid and then pour it through a strainer to remove all of the solids. (The shank can be made ahead of time up to this point, and both the meat and sauce should be refrigerated separately.)

4. Wipe the shank dry with a clean paper towel. Warm the honey until it is runny and then smear it all over the skin (but not the meaty end). Warm the oil over medium in a tall pan with as small a base as possible (one that is about an inch wider than the shank is perfect), as the oil is going to explode all over the place if you are not careful. When the oil is hot enough to form bubbles on a chopstick, use long metal tongs to add the shank skin-side down into the oil and then immediately cover the pan with a spatter screen. Carefully turn the shank over in the oil as it brown until all of the skin is the color of maple syrup, adjusting the heat as necessary. Remove the pan from the heat. When the spattering dies down, use tongs to remove the shank to a heatproof bowl that is large enough to hold both it and a cup or so of liquid.

Torching off some hairs
5. Prepare a steamer that is deep and wide enough to comfortably hold the bowl with the pork shank. Tie the fennel seeds, cinnamon, and Sichuan peppercorns in a cheesecloth bag or tea ball, and then add them along with the ginger, soy sauce, and rice wine to the pork shank. Place the sugar and a few tablespoons of filtered water in a stainless steel pan and heat it over high, swishing it gently as needed, until it caramelizes, and then add this to the liquid. Pour a cup or so of the strained braising liquid over the pork, reserving the rest for something else. Steam the pork for about 2 hours over medium heat, adding more water to the steamer as needed. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more rock sugar, soy sauce, or wine if you want. Turn the pork over and let it steam another 2 hours, and then turn off the heat and let the pork cool down in the sauce. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight or up to a couple of days.

6. Steam the pork for about another 2 hours before serving. Remove the shank to a serving bowl. Pour the sauce into a small saucepan and adjust the seasoning a final time. Bring the sauce to a bowl, lower the heat to medium, and stir in the cornstarch slurry. Cook the sauce while stirring constantly until it is thick and glossy. Pour this over the shank and garnish with the julienned green onions. I like to serve the hot pork with a small sharp knife on the side so that guests can admire it whole before someone slices it into wedges. Grab some of the skin while you can, as it will induce moans of pleasure, and the pork should be a rosy pink with luscious layers of melted tendons that are sticky and in perfect contrast to the juicy, flavorful meat.


Buy the absolute best pork you can find. The skin should cover the entire shank, and the fat should be an even layer.

Heritage pork is, as always, my favorite, since it has great flavor and the pigs have been raised with care. Second – though close – is good free-range, organic pork.
Steamed into submission

It might be very difficult to find good pork shanks in a Western butcher shop, so cultivate a relationship with a professional butcher who buys whole pigs and so can save you the bits you want.

The shanks are sometimes sold already boned, which is all right; this might lessen the cooking time, so keep an eye on it during the last 2 hours and adjust the heat and cooking time accordingly. Butchers like to just slice it up the side, since carefully removing the bone by cutting at either end takes a bit of time and finesse. If you do have a shank that is cut up by the butcher, do not despair, as it will taste equally good.

Make this a few days ahead of time, if you wish, as the rest will only improve the flavor of the meat. Steam it as directed for 2 hours before serving. 

Cooking the pork without any salt at the beginning is key to keeping the meat tender.


  1. Sensational. It's too bad that this cut of meat is somewhat difficult to find in mainstream American markets.

    1. Yeah, I know. But if enough of us clamor...

    2. I just got my hands on an organic, locally raised, heritage pork shank. I'm going to try making this recipe!