Monday, August 31, 2015

Fresh guanciale, Yunnan style

This was our favorite thing to order at the traditional Yunnan-style restaurant called Yúnnán Rénhéyuán 雲南仁和園 in downtown Taipei. Back in the day, we would be served shards of the entire boned pig’s head: face, snout, jowls, ears, and tongue. I prefer, however, to make it just with the meaty jowls — i.e., cheeks. 

The jowl is slowly simmered in a richly seasoned liquid that permeates every cell, and it’s already so flavorful that you really don’t need a highly seasoned sauce, but even so, I would never serve this dish without it. The chilies, garlic, vinegar, green onions, soy sauce, and sesame oil come together to bathe each slice with an aromatic sheen that stuns the taste buds a bit as they hit the tongue, and then they subside just as the teeth release those herby, porky flavors hidden in each satiny slice.
Make razor-thin slices

A direct translation of the Chinese name, “big thin slices,” dabaopian is a study in the Chinese ideal of yóu ér búnì 油而不膩,  which means “buttery but not greasy.” This means that the pork has a silky, creamy texture that does not leave a layer of fat in your mouth. And considering that this cut of meat is pretty much the equivalent of fresh bacon, that is nothing short of amazing.

Pig jowls come pre-cleaned, which saves you a lot of hassle, and they are the tastiest part of the head. The jowls look for all the world like a nice piece of pork belly: a thick cut of meat interwoven with white fat, and a good layer of skin on top. Most Chinese places treat the jowls like fresh bacon (the Italians do the same thing when making guanciale). In fact, you can even consider substituting pork jowl for pork belly in other recipes. It is generally cheaper than most cuts of pork because most people here are just not familiar with it. For that reason, a good butcher might often carry it after a whole hog has been butchered, or they might accept special orders (see the Tips), but most supermarkets won’t.

A two-pound cheek will not look all that big, but something happens as it cooks: the cells swell up, and you are left with a really luscious pillow after a couple of hours. Chill the pork overnight and be sure and strain the liquid, for it makes an excellent stock.
A fresh pig jowl - yum!

Another thing I’d recommend is that you make this dish only for adults – the reason is that dabaopian is definitely bar food of the highest order. Like so many of China’s rich meat dishes, dabaopian demands the accompaniment of a drink that can hold its own against the rich flavors and fermented seasonings in the sauce. Be certain to serve this alongside something alcoholic - be it rice wine, white liquor, or even whiskey or scotch - but I wouldn’t recommend things like grape wines or even chilled beer.

Instead, this needs the lush aromas of a hearty grain-based brew, preferably at room temperature for the white liquor and those Western brews, or even hotter for the rice wine. Both Maotai (from Guizhou) and Gaoliang (from Kinmen in Taiwan) would be good here. Warmth is necessary to keep the mouth at body temperature or higher, which prevents the fats from seizing up and turning your tongue into a coated gym sock. The esters in the white liquor then work with the savory aromas to turn this into a serious source of dining pleasure.

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

1 (2 pounds, or so) pig jowl (a/k/a cheek), with the skin attached
Water, as needed
¼ cup white liquor
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 jalapeño peppers
3 green onions, trimmed
6 cloves garlic, peeled
6 tablespoons regular soy sauce
6 tablespoons black vinegar
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1. Start this at least a day before you plan to serve it. Rinse the jowl and pat it 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 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 white liquor, green onions, ginger, and salt to the pork. If you want, enclose the Sichuan peppercorns and fennel in either some cheesecloth or a mesh ball and toss this in the pot, or else let them roam free with the other seasonings. 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 thickest part — it should offer 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 a couple of days. The broth can be strained and used for something else, while the solids should be discarded.
Ready for the pot

2. Before you do anything else, pull out any hairs you find in the skin at this point, since they will be easy to remove with either tweezers or a paring knife. Once that is done, cut the jowl against the grain 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 a fine mince, 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.


Pork jowls are not always available in Western butcher shops. I therefore ask my butcher to set them aside for me when they bring in a whole hog.

The white liquor, ginger, and spices work to tame the natural gaminess of the jowls. What you should end up with is a mildly flavored meat.

As with French headcheese, this dish benefits from a tart, aromatic sauce. The chili peppers can be as hot as you like, and you can use a chili sauce, if you prefer. I’d caution against adding sugar to the sauce.

You can, of course, use a whole boned pig’s head here. But make sure you multiply the recipe ingredients by 3, because you will have around 7 pounds of pork to contend with.


  1. I love how poetic you get when describing the pork jowls. It sounds absolutely delicious too. Another great post!

    1. Hard not to get excited about pork jowls... thanks!