Monday, April 27, 2015

Something that will make your Taiwanese friends deliriously happy

One time we were absolutely starved, but since the restaurant we normally patronize in a Chinese strip mall near here was still taking its afternoon siesta, we hunted around for something else to eat. 

The sign for one place looked promising: home-style Taiwanese food. Visions of the great street food we used to enjoy in Taipei danced in our head, and we were almost giddy at the thought of having some oyster rolls, fish ball soup, sesame oil chicken, and braised pork over rice.

Our hopes and ravenous taste buds were dashed with equal force when the waiter said that they didn't have any of those dishes, either on the menu or because they weren't in stock. So, we ordered a bunch of other items that were barely edible and not particularly memorable except for their extravagant prices.

The secret ingredients
And I started to wonder, why can't I get some of Taiwan's greatest street foods around here? There certainly are enough Taiwanese in the Bay Area to warrant a try, and I bet if any clever restaurateur put a good bowl of that porky manna from heaven called lurou fan before a homesick Taiwanese, he or she would have a customer for life.

Utterly dissatisfied with my meal, but with my memories and appetite kicked into full gear, I went grocery shopping on my way home.

Right after I walked in the door, I got out my wok and whipped up one of those staples of Taiwanese street food, the kind of food that grandmas have bubbling on the stove and sending out puffs of deliriously delicious fragrances out of apartment windows, one of those dishes that you swear you can smell in your dreams.

The good thing is that it's not hard to make, it's great to have on hand, and anyone who likes pork and soy sauce will fall in love. As in the traditional recipes, the pork is served with a hard-boiled egg that has simmered in the pork sauce, as well as a bright round of Japanese pickled daikon. 
Learn how to boil the perfect egg!

In our house, we have one person who will eat as many eggs as he can get away with. (One time I made a dozen eggs like these and came upon him in the kitchen happily polishing off egg #9.) I therefore make lots more eggs that these recipes usually call for. Feel free to double or triple the amount of hard-boiled eggs; your only limitation is the sauce that needs to cover them, and the recipe can be doubled or tripled, as well. I have some suggestions below on how to get your eggs to end up with a yolk that is balanced in the center, rather than clinging to one side and subjecting the white to tearing.

There is also a recipe here for fried shallots, a prized seasoning in Taiwanese cooking. If you can, double the recipe and use the crispy little rings in your eggs, over noodles, on top of soups or even salads, and anywhere that could benefit from their subtle oniony punch and crunch. The oil the shallots were fried in is wonderful too, and is one of Chinese cuisine's traditional finishing oils, or mingyou, that are sprinkled over dishes to add a nice sheet and touch of flavor. Store this oil in the fridge, and keep a bit of it in a squirt bottle next to the stove. 

Frying shallots - seriously yum
Back to the star of the show, though. The resulting pork and sauce is served over a bowl of steaming rice with an egg (or three), a sprinkle of chopped cilantro, and a couple slices of that neon yellow Japanese daikon pickle known as takuan. This last fillip is probably a leftover from Taiwan's colonial days, when the Japanese ruled the roost. The politics of the matter aside, Japan left its cuisine behind in good hands, for this touch of color and piquant flavor is nothing less than perfect in this bowl of traditional Taiwanese aromas.

Eat it and weep... with delight.

Diced braised pork over rice
Lǔròu fàn 滷肉飯
Southern Fujian & Taiwan
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multi-course meal

Fried shallots:
1 cup thinly-sliced shallots or small onions
2 cups fresh vegetable or peanut oil

Braised pork and eggs:
2 pounds fresh pork (try to get a ratio of two parts lean to one part fat)
½ cup garlic, chopped
½ cup shallots, chopped
The fried shallots (see above)
6 tablespoons peanut oil
Boiling water as needed
6 to 8 hard-boiled eggs, peeled

4 tablespoons tasty peanut butter, chunky or smooth
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 whole star anise
½ teaspoon five-spice powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup light soy sauce
¾ cup mild rice wine (
Taiwanese Mijiu) 
Rock sugar to taste (or about the size of a walnut)
4 cups boiling water

Final touches:
6 to 8 cups hot steamed rice
Pickled Japanese daikon (takuan), sliced
Chopped cilantro

1. Start this dish at least a day before you want to serve it. First make the fried shallots. Separate the sliced shallots (or onions) into rings so that they fry quickly and evenly. Heat the oil in a wok over medium high heat until a wooden or bamboo chopstick inserted into the oil is immediately covered with bubbles. Sprinkle in the shallots, reduce the heat to medium, and slowly fry them until they turn a golden brown, stirring often so that they do not burn or cook unevenly. Remove the fried shallots to a plate, strain the oil, and use that as a finishing oil, or mingyou, in other dishes.

Porky gravel
2. Blanch the pork for ten minutes and cut in small dice.  Fry the raw shallots and garlic in oil until light brown. Add the pork and fry it until cooked it begins to brown; if you have pork skin in the mix, be sure to use a spatter shield or a lid over the pork while it is frying, since the pork skin is liable to explode and shoot all over. Add the fried shallots and all of the sauce ingredients, topping it off with enough boiling water to cover. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, cover, and let it cook for about half an hour. 

3. Taste and adjust the flavor with salt, wine, and sugar as needed. Add the eggs, bring the pot to a boil again, and then let it simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes. Allow the sauce to come to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate overnight for best flavor. Try to submerge the eggs so that they obtain an even golden color.

4. The next day or - even better - after a couple of days, scrape most of the fat off of the top (if you want) before bringing the pork and eggs to a boil again; reduce it to a gentle simmer and cook uncovered for about an hour, turning the eggs occasionally so that they tan evenly. (If you cook the eggs with the cover on, they will get a honeycomb effect throughout the egg whites and will become tough.) Remove the eggs from the sauce and bring the pork and sauce to a boil to reduce it to about ¼ to ½ cup.

5. To serve, place about a cup of hot steamed rice in a large soup bowl, and put an egg on top of the rice and a mound of the pork next to it along with a couple slices of pickled daikon. Dribble a bit of the sauce over the pork and egg. Dust with some chopped cilantro and serve.

Variations: This pork is great on a variety of things, from fried eggplant to blanched bean sprouts to blanched Chinese chives. Leftovers can be used to top a simple egg omelet, tossed with cooked eggplant, or ladled on top of a bowl of hot noodles soup. Consider making a double amount of the pork and freezing it in 1-cup bags so that you can have lunch or dinner in the time it takes to boil your noodles.

Lovely, lovely eggs
Tip on making a balanced hard-boiled egg: This is one of those cooking secrets that sounds so obvious once you hear it. Just gently stir the eggs as they come to a boil, so that the raw yolk is moving around in the egg while the whites start to set up. Also, use medium heat rather than high heat to boil the eggs, which gives the eggs time to set up evenly. 


  1. This looks absolutely fantastic! I'm going to go by a chuck of pork belly and shoulder just to try this "lo ba beeng" recipe out over the weekend.

    Actually, do you are have a recipe for the Taiwanese version five-spice powder you are using here? I find the mixes from Taiwan a bit different from that of HK and China, and have been trying to figure out how to make my own. The factories and people are a bit tight lipped about what the five (or so) spices are and I have had little success finding out.

    1. Thank you! I love the bit of peanut butter in there and the mountains of fried shallots... they really make my day.

      That's a good question about the five-spice blend. If you go online, you'll see all sorts of thrashes on Chinese discussion boards about what makes a great combination. From what I can taste, it's very similar to what is used in traditional Guangdong cooking, and that seems to be basically Chinese cinnamon (肉桂), anise, coriander seeds, star anise, and a touch of cloves. However, some people like black cardamom, black pepper, and ginger in there instead of or in addition to some of the spices. (You can add more than five spices, btw, and no one will be the wiser!) It's actually better to grind your mixes yourself in small batches, as you can then taste and adjust until you find your sweet spot.

      I've also come to enjoy toasting the spices separately in a dry wok until they pop and just barely start to smoke, as that mellows out their flavors. Just be sure to cool the spices off completely before grinding them so that they don't clump up.