Monday, December 12, 2016

Creamy, cheesy pork from Jiangsu

All Under Heaven and The Dim Sum Field Guide continue to make some pretty darned amazing "best of 2016" lists, and all I can do is feel stunned and intensely happy. 

Thank you NPR's Book Concierge for including The Field Guide among so many illustrious writers in "Our Guide to 2016's Great Reads"! Nina Gregory, their Arts Desk editor, kindly noted that the Guide is "small enough to fit into a handbag," and this "beautifully illustrated guide really can help a nervous diner navigate the sometimes intimidating realm of dim sum."

What a wonderful surprise that Tom Philpott of Mother Jones added All Under Heaven to his list of "5 Cookbooks that Wowed Us in 2016." I mean, I adore Mother Jones - and have so for decades - so I'm still a bit agog. Here's what he said: "I've never been to China, but for me, All Under Heaven brings home the vibrant, vegetable-forward, umami-laced restaurant cooking I've found in places with large Chinese enclaves, like Manhattan's Chinatown."

And finally, the terrific New York City cookbook store Kitchen Arts & Lectures was kind enough to include All Under Heaven in "Matt's Favorite Home Books 2016." In his summary, Matt Sartwell explained that he "favored books that offer readers a conversation with an author who has knowledge and a distinctive point of view. In an era when recipes are free all over the internet, people paying for books deserve an extra level of engagement from an author. These are the books of 2016 that I think do that best for home cooks." 

I am beaming really loud right now. Thank you all for these truly kind words. What an honor. And a joy.

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Perfect pork belly with skin
Cheesy Pork. I’m sure that the name alone makes you wonder: Is this a take on a Philly cheesesteak? A Velveeta wonder dish gone awry? I understand your confusion. Take comfort, for there’s no milk in here at all. In fact, the “cheese” is actually fermented bean curd, an extraordinary ingredient you should get to know up close and personal... and as soon as possible, I might add.

We looked at the way to make this easy ingredient both here on the blog and in All Under Heaven. Doufuru is popular throughout much of China, particularly in the coastal areas from Jiangsu in the north down to Guangdong and Guangxi in the south, west out to Anhui and east as far as Taiwan, and it changes remarkably depending upon the local preferences.

For example, in places like Fuzhou in Fujian it often is cured in the local scarlet rice wine, another ingredient you can make yourself. This gives the cheesy cubes a beautiful red hue and subtle wine flavor. Further down south you’ll find spicier versions in some areas, while Anhui celebrates its deep love for all things pungent with a variety that could give Limburger cheese a run for its money.
Daxi style bean curd "cheese"

My absolute favorite, though, comes from the village of Daxi in northern Taiwan. It is a delightful amber color, and the doufu cubes are studded with darker brown soybeans. The sauce is slightly sweet, the cubes are softly cheesy, and it is one of those ingredients that begs to be savored as is. And I comply, happily I might add, by perching one of these squares and a sprinkle of the savory soybeans on a bowl of hot steamed rice or sandwiching a smear inside freshly made steamed bread. That’s because – at last to my mind – this is the most wonderfully cheesy doufuru around, and very very easy to love.

What is doufuru? In many ways it is much like a brined Western cheese, like feta, for it first requires that a liquid gets turned into a solid (here that means soymilk into bean curd, or doufu or tofu), inoculated with molds, allowed to transform into a whole new creature (i.e., bean curd “cheese”), and then cured in a brine.

In this dish I’ve satisfied my adoration for Daxi-style doufuru by flinging it into the pot with some willing squares of pork belly. And, because I love the gorgeous pink hue that comes from the more traditional red bean curd “cheese,” I add some red wine yeast.

My favorite packages
This latter ingredient is, I agree, not always easy to find outside of areas with large Chinese populations, so go with what you have, as this dish will be stunning no matter what kind of cheesy doufu you use. Like our own cheeses, just about any variety will add creaminess to the sauce, will permeate the meat with its tangy notes, and turn this into something that is downright luscious.

Cheesy pork
Fŭrú ròu 腐乳肉
Serves 8

2 pounds / 900 g excellent quality pork belly with the skin on (see Tips)
Boiling water, as needed
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 lumps of rock sugar, each about the size of an egg
2 cups / 500 ml Shaoxing rice wine
1 cup / 250 ml fermented rice solids (see Tips)
6 slices fresh ginger
3 green onions, trimmed
2 to 3 cubes bean curd “cheese,” plus a tablespoon or so of the sauce (see headnotes and Tips), mashed
1 tablespoon red rice wine yeast, optional
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
Red rice wine yeast in the pot

1. Start this a day or up to 3 days ahead of time. Chill the pork so that it is easy to slice cleanly and pluck out any errant hairs. Trim the edges of the pork, if needed, and remove any tough pieces of lean pork that line the bottom, as these will never cook up tender. Cut the pork into 8 even cubes. Tie each cube with kitchen twine to form a small package, as this will help the meat maintain its shape during the cooking process. Place the pork in a pan, cover with boiling water, and simmer the meat for 10 minutes or so. Dump out the water and then rinse the scum off of the pork and pan.

2. Pour the oil into an 8-cup / 2-liter dry pan or skillet, preferably stainless steel so that you can see the caramelization process clearly. Add the rock sugar and place the pan over low heat. As the oil heats up, the sugar will start to crack along its crystals, and so you can start to lightly whack at it with a wooden spoon to encourage it to break down into sandy piles. Stir the sugar often to keep any one area from quickly caramelizing and then burning. When most of the sugar has melted, stir pretty much constantly, as the sugar will now start to caramelize. Remove from the heat once the sugar has turned into a lovely amber syrup and immediately pour in the rice wine to stop the sugar from burning. The sugar will seize up and solidify, but that is all right.
The yeast coloring up the braise

3. Add the fermented rice solids, ginger, whole green onions, mashed bean curd “cheese,” and optional red rice wine yeast. Arrange the pork in the sauce and cover with boiling water. Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat and then lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook the pork uncovered for 1½ to 2 hours, or until the pork is tender and the liquid has reduced by around half. Add the soy sauce and continue to simmer the sauce until it has the consistency of heavy cream. Remove from the heat and allow this to come to room temperature. Pluck out and discard the ginger and green onions. You can also strain the sauce, if you would like it very smooth. Transfer the pork and sauce to a heatproof covered bowl and chill at least overnight and up to a couple of days.

4. About an hour before serving, cut the strings off of the pork and remove any solid fat. Steam the pork and sauce for at least half an hour, although the pork will not suffer if it is steamed longer. Serve hot with the sauce, lots of hot steamed rice, and a simple side of flash-fried greens, like pea sprouts.


Get top quality, heritage pork. No substitutes will do. Bad meat smells horrible and tastes worse and is bad for you. Spring for the good stuff. Here are some suggestions for picking the best pork belly.
It's what's for dinner

You won’t find good pork belly with the skin on in supermarkets. Even Whole Foods has recently dropped out of the game and sells only pork with the skin removed – this was met with absolute dismay by about every Chinese person lined up at the counter on my most recent visit.

What to do? Nurture an excellent relationship with an independent butcher. Find out if you can order the best pork with the skin on, plus things like ears or tails or kidneys or whatever else you love. (And I will get you to love them, if I have my way.) Because these animals are often purchased as whole or half animals, I try to get dibs on my favorite cuts. If you have the freezer space, consider making this really worth your butcher’s time by getting whatever things you think you’ll need over the next month or two. Win win.

If you don’t have any fermented rice hanging around, use an extra half cup of Shaoxing rice wine.

Red rice wine yeast is often hard to find, so a perfectly delicious alternative is red doufuru, since it already contains the red yeast. Or, you can just do without and have a pale yet equally good plate of pork.


  1. Hi-Late seeing this--sorry--You can get pork belly, skin on, at Berkeley Bowl. Look for Llano Seco brand. I literally ate it yesterday. Sometimes Becker has skin, sometimes not. And their house brand sometimes yes, sometimes not. I bet if you asked, you could get the skin-on. Though this is no help to readers outside our area; sorry for that.

    1. Good to know. We are new to the area, so this is really helpful information. Thanks, Diane!