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|
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.
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
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.
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|
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.
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.