Monday, August 11, 2014

One of Shaoxing's most divine dishes, and that's saying a lot

Getting this one dish right took me decades, but in the end it was worth it. When done right — like here — a perfect balance is struck between sweet and savory, meat and vegetable, fresh and preserved, tender and chewy. 

A specialty of the Shaoxing area of Zhejiang, it relies upon a seasoned dried mustard called meicai, which literally means “plum vegetable.” This always struck me as strange until I one day realized that the original name was méicài 霉菜, or “moldy vegetable,” since the mustard is allowed to ferment much like soy sauce, another specialty of the region.

The key seasoning
The Hakka have a dish with the same name and similar ingredients, the main difference being the type of preserved vegetable being used (the Hakkas prefer a fatter mustard with crunchy stems, rather than the shriveled leaves of Shaoxing) and the way in which the pork belly is prepared, as the meat is kept in one piece rather than sliced, as it is here. Some have surmised that this dish was brought by the Hakka when they moved south from the Yangtze area into Guangdong hill country.

This is without doubt the best recipe for this dish I’ve ever tasted. Deep winey flavors combine with lots of ginger and green onions to season the pork and vegetable. I love this for a cool weather dinner, and the first days of autumn have convinced me to make it again. It’s easy enough for just the family and delicious enough to please the finickiest guest. It’s also a great make-ahead dish that can be stashed in the fridge or freezer, making dinner parties a breeze.
Shaoxing style meicai

Molded pork with preserved vegetables
Méicài kòuròu 梅菜扣肉
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound nicely-striped pork belly with the skin on
Supporting cast
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
¼ cup oil for frying
Water as needed

Vegetables and the rest:
6 ounces Shaoxing style meicai
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
¼ cup thinly sliced ginger
3 green onions, trimmed but left whole  
1 piece of rock sugar (about the size of a large cherry), or more as needed
1½ teaspoons white liquor

1. Rinse the pork and pat it dry. Pluck out any hairs on the skin and trim off any nipples. Pour the soy sauce into a medium work bowl and place the pork skin-side down into the soy sauce to marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Have a wok ready, as well as the oil and a pot of cool tap water.
Fry the skin, then soak

2. Place the meicai in a sieve (not a colander, as the holes are often too big) and rinse it with very warm tap water. As soon as it has softened up a bit, squeeze the meicai dry and place it on a chopping board. Work apart the clumps and use kitchen shears to chop any largish pieces. Place the meicai in a small work bowl and toss it with the rice wine.

3. Place the wok over medium-high heat, and when it is hot, add the oil. Wipe the pork skin dry and fry only the skin of the pork. Cover the wok with a spatter screen, and when the pork can be easily shaken loose and the skin is a nice brown, remove the pork from the wok and place it in the pan of cool water. As soon as it can be handled easily, slice the pork crosswise into pieces about ¼-inch thick.

4. Scatter the pork slices over the meicai and then sprinkle on the ginger slices. Lay the whole green onions on top, and finally add the rock sugar.

Ready for 1st steaming
5. Prepare a steamer and place the bowl in there. If the steamer cover will drip water down into the bowl, cover the bowl with a saucer; otherwise, it’s all right to leave it uncovered. Steam the pork for around 2 hours, remove it from the steamer, and let it come to room temperature. Remove the green onions (they are very tasty, so keep them as a cook’s treat) and reserve the ginger slices. Drain the sauce out into a measuring cup. If the sauce has a layer of fat, refrigerate it until the fat hardens and can be easily removed.

6. Line the inside of a heatproof 6-cup bowl with the pork slices by first placing 1 or 2 of the prettiest slices at the very bottom and then covering the sides by overlapping them in an attractive pattern. Mound the meicai in the middle and lightly pack it down. Sprinkle on the white liquor, pour in the sauce, and arrange the ginger slices back over the top.
2nd steaming

7. Steam the bowl as in Step 5 for another 4 hours or so. This can be done ahead of time, and then this dish can be cooled down before being refrigerated or frozen. Just before serving, steam the pork until it is heated through.

8. To serve, pour off the sauce into a measuring cup. Place a rimmed plate over the bowl and flip it over onto the plate. Pour the sauce around the molded pork and serve.

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