Thursday, April 4, 2013

On having great face in Yunnan

Whenever we ate at the restaurant Yunnan Renheyuan in downtown Taipei, this would be the first thing to arrive on our table. We’d get dabaopian (big thin slices) as an appetizer to calm our raging hunger, and that it would do, while at the same time readying our taste buds for the coming meal.

If you've never eaten pig’s head or head cheese or pork jowls, this might seem like an odd thing to order of your own free will. But those of you who know and love this cut of meat will understand completely.

Traditionally, this dish is made with the entire boned pig’s head so that what is left looks a whole lot like one of those pullover rubber Halloween masks. You will have the face and snout, as well as the ears and maybe even the tongue.

Big, thin slices of jowl
My husband used to love making different pig’s head dishes at home – his favorite being a dish he concocted of the thinly sliced meat stir-fried with satay sauce – but since I was always given the job of cleaning the damn thing, I rebelled after about the third head. 

Back then, you see, most of the hair would be gone by the time the butcher handed over this big bundle, but there would still be enough bristles to cause me great anxiety, and then there was the problem of how to successfully swab out the ears and nostrils. Many Q-tips and gallons of sudsy water later, I’d have a shiny face looking back at me, but this press gang sort of labor killed any appetite along the way and led to grim thoughts of how my life had led this sad task of swabbing out a rubbery snout in a kitchen that supplied only cold tap water.

My husband is a happy man once again (and I a happy woman) because I've found that pig jowls are not only provided clean here in the States, but they are the nicest cut of the head, with thick layers of meat interwoven with white fat and a good layer of skin on top. This cut looks for all the world like a great piece of pork belly, which is why so many places treat it like fresh bacon, such as the Italians with their guanciale. In fact, consider using pork jowl interchangeably with pork belly, as it generally is quite cheap, since few (white) people know what they’re missing.

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

1 pig jowl (cheek) with the skin attached, about 2 pounds
Filtered water as needed
¼ cup white liquor
Like the best fresh bacon
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 jalapeno peppers
3 green onions, trimmed
6 cloves garlic, peeled
6 tablespoons regular soy sauce
6 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

Side view of the raw jowl
1. Rinse the jowl and pat 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 tap 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 rest of the ingredients, 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 skin into the meat; there should be 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 maybe 4 days. (The broth can be strained and used for something else.)

2. Before you do anything else, pull out any errant hairs at this point, since they will be easy to remove with either tweezers (get the big Chinese kind at a market or kitchen supply store, if possible) or a paring knife; if you’re using the knife, put your thumb on one side of a hair and the knife on the other, and then pull up. Once that is done, cut the jowl 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 tiny pieces, 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.
No longer a weird cut of meat

Pork jowls – also called cheeks – are not always available in Western butcher shops. I ask my butcher to set one aside for me when they bring in a whole hog. As always, the quality of the meat is essential to the success of this dish, so aim for pigs that were raised and butchered with care.

The white liquor, Sichuan peppercorns, and ginger work to tame the natural gaminess of this cut of pork. What you should end up with is a mildly flavored meat that is gently seasoned.

As with French headcheese, this dish benefits from a tart, aromatic sauce. The chili peppers can be as hot or not as you and your family likes. I’d caution against adding sugar to the sauce since that acidity is what perks up the palate and cuts the fatty elements down to size.
You can, of course, use a whole boned pig’s head here; just realize that you will have around 7 pounds of pork to contend with, so multiply the ingredients by around 3.

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