Monday, August 26, 2013

What's better than bacon? Stuffed Hakka bacon!

Major feast dishes in the Hakka repertoire are fairly rare, as most of it is down-home cooking meant for family meals. But the ones that Hakka families wheel out for weddings, birthdays, and other celebrations will almost always include this dish.
Pork belly is also known as fresh bacon, and it actually comes from the side of the pig where there’s still muscle weaving in and out of the fat layers. This part of the animal doesn’t get worked a whole lot, and so the fat builds up easily here.

The best pork belly will have distinct, thin layers of skin, then fat, meat, fat, meat, fat, and then meat. That last layer of meat is usually trimmed off and used for something else because it is not that tender, so you are left with five layers under the skin, which is why the Chinese call this cut wŭhuāròu 五花肉, or five-patterned meat.

Mmmm, bacon
Whenever you select this type of meat, try to avoid pieces that are on the edges, which will give you either too much fat or thick layers of meat. You really want to have that nice streaking, believe me. Just think of your perfect slice of bacon…
This dish originated around the Shaoxing area of Jiangsu, where it is still popular, although sweeter and more redolent with Shaoxing rice wine than what is made in Hakka households.

The “plum vegetable” or meicai that is used in both places is quite different, with the Hakka style usually sold in whole hanks, while Shaoxing style meicai comes chopped and is slightly drier. 

Among the two versions of this dish, I actually prefer this Hakka one, perhaps because it reminds me so much of my late father-in-law’s cooking. The greens end up tender and almost buttery, much more delicious than any of the Shaoxing style greens I've used. They require a much shorter cooking time and lend an almost exquisite lightness to the dish. I'm sure I'm prejudiced, being a Hakka daughter-in-law, but there you have it. 
Hakka style meicai

The difficulty lies in finding the meicai. I lucked upon a supplier in Chinatown who had a box of meicai from the town of Huìzhōu 惠州, which is in the heart of Cantonese Hakka country. What heaven!

Pork belly with preserved mustard greens
Méicài kòuròu  梅菜扣肉
Serves 4

1 pound good pork belly (fresh bacon) with the skin on
Boiling water as needed
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
½ cup peanut or vegetable oil (used okay here)
Fry the meicai

8 ounces (or so) preserved Hakka-style mustard greens (meicai)
Filtered water
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
5 tablespoons rice wine (mijiu)
1 to 2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
3 green onions, trimmed
10 thin slices (¼ cup) fresh ginger

1. This dish is best a day or two after you make it, as the sauce can then penetrate the meat; it will also allow you to remove the congealed fat before you steam it a final time. Rinse the pork belly and pat dry; you don’t have to worry about any fine hairs, as they will be burned off later, but thick hairs should be plucked out. Trim the pork so it is an even square or rectangle. Place the pork in a medium saucepan, cover it with water, and bring the water to a full boil over high heat. Lower the heat to medium and simmer the pork for about 10 minutes to remove any impurities. Drain the pork and let it cool down.

2. While the pork is cooling down, prepare the mustard greens: soak them in warm water until pliable, swishing them around and changing the water as many times as necessary to shake loose all of the sand nestled in the leaves, and then use a sharp knife chop them into small (½-inch or less) pieces. Rinse the mustard greens in a colander under running water a final time to remove any sand or dirt. Squeeze the greens dry and toss them with the oil, 2 tablespoons of the rice wine, regular soy sauce, and sugar. Heat a dry wok over medium-high heat and fry this mixture until most of the sauce has been absorbed.

3. Pat the cooled-down pork dry with a paper towel. Rub the skin all over with the dark soy sauce. Heat a frying pan over medium heat, add the oil, and then place the pork skin-side down in the hot fat (don’t fry the other sides of the meat) and fry the pork skin until it is a nice mahogany brown with bubbles and blisters all over the surface; use a spatter screen to protect you from flying fat while it fries. Remove the pork to a cutting board and let it cool down a bit.
Deep-fried skin

4. With the skin-side down on the board, use a sharp knife to cut down through the meat and fat all the way up to—but not through—the skin, making ¼-inch wide slices all the way down the piece of pork; of course, you may adjust the number of cuts to match the number of people who will be dining. Place the pork skin-side down into a heatproof 4-cup bowl.

5. Stuff the pork slices with the greens, packing in as much as possible into and around the meat. Cut the green onions into 1-inch pieces and arrange them on top along with the ginger slices. Pour the rest of the rice wine over everything. Place the bowl in a steamer and steam over medium heat for 4 hours.

6. Remove the pork from the steamer, cool it to room temperature, and turn the pork over so that it is skin-side up. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one or two days.  Remove most of the fat from the sauce, if desired. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning one last time. Place a rimmed plate over the bowl and invert the bowl onto the plate; carefully lift off the bowl. Pour the sauce around and over the meat, and serve immediately with hot steamed rice.


  1. This is a great dish-but it really is better as well as easier to broil the pork belly rather than do the traditional but messy deep fry.

    1. That is a great idea, and I'll try it next time. Thanks! The skin does not have to be deep fried, though, as only a small amount of fat is needed to fry it without reaching up into the meat...

  2. Carolyn, not sure if you'll see this, but here's a link to a mail-order source for mei cai:

    It's dried, and will have to be rehydrated.

    1. That's it! Yup, all meicai has to be rehydrated. The drying process is what give meicai its lovely depth of aroma and flavor. Excellent find. Thanks!