Monday, September 25, 2017

Perfect garlic lava pork

I adore chilled dishes any time of year, and some of my absolute favorites hail from Sichuan. 

Part of this has to do with the alchemy of chiles and vinegar and Sichuan peppercorns bumping up against whatever is being served, for they wake up the appetite and yet cool down the body. This is Chinese therapeutic medicine at its most delicious.

As with just about all the cold appetizers of China, this can be made well ahead of time, which means that you won’t have to be stuck in the kitchen. 

That's why, when I have friends coming over for a meal, I get started in the cool morning hours and try to have all the grunt work banged out by 10. That leaves me plenty of time to tidy up and contemplate the upcoming festivities over a glass of iced tea. (By the way, I heartily recommending that you double or triple the pork, since it's then all cooked and ready to go for a week's worth of fine dining.)

Sichuan peppercorns & garlic
Garlic pork is yet another genius dish that is more of a composition than anything else. One of the best versions I ever had was at an Yibin style restaurant in Chengdu. Yibin is an old city, and I mean old even by Chinese standards, for it's been around for four millennia. The foods in this ancient city have had time to develop in wonderful ways, and so are a delectable fusion of Han Chinese and local minority (mainly Yi and Miao) cuisines, as well as a crossroads between Sichuan and Yunnan's culinary traditions. And so, yes, this is definitely a place for eating. 

But the recipes of Yibin are also incredibly easy most of the time. Especially when the results are so perfect, such as in this dish. The pork is gently simmered in nothing more than water with a dash of salt and Sichuan peppercorns, so it’s simplicity itself. That being said, the pork has to be of excellent quality. The pork is the star of the show here, and there is nothing to disguise anything less than perfection, which means you should first head to a great butcher.

What you want and need here is meat and fat, plus skin, if possible. The fat is necessary to provide tenderness between the bites of meat. The pork will not taste greasy when made this way, so don’t worry about that. And the skin supplies extra snap and texture to the dish. Skin is not always easy to find for some reason, even around here in the Bay Area, but its absence should not stop you from making this dish.
A fatty hunk of pork shoulder

As for the cut of the meat, pork belly is great, as is the rump or the shoulder. Ask the butcher what is available and what really looks great to her or him. If you’re offered the belly, make sure it has ribbons of fat interspersed with the meat, as that equals lovely mouthfeel and flavor. If it’s the rump, try to get a tender hunk of meat with a nice layer of fat for the same reasons. Any other cut will do, too, as long as it’s boneless and tender and does not include things like tendons, which won’t get a chance to cook properly in this dish. Pork cheeks will work exceptionally well, by the way, so be on the lookout for them.

Once the pork has been cooked and chilled, that is when you should slice it. Refrigerating the pork makes it easier to handle. It won’t fall apart as you slice it, but rather will behave well. Always slice the pork against the grain, as this increases its tenderness. And practice making each slice even and beautiful so that this dish turns out to be a feast for the eyes, as well as for the other senses.

You can play with the sauce as much as you like, but the emphasis should always be on the garlic. It can be fiery or not, so feel free to add lots of chiles or no chiles at all (the red does make this dish look particularly appetizing, though). However, whatever you do, be sure to not make the sauce too sweet. A good bit of vinegar prevents the dish from becoming cloying and cuts the fattiness, but nevertheless, still hold back on the sugar... you already have a nice little sweet jolt from the oyster sauce and sweet soy sauce. 

Secret: soak the raw garlic
One way in which this recipe differs from the traditional methods is that I add salt and spices to the pork as it is simmering to amplify and balance the natural meaty aromas. Be sure and reserve the stock after you've cooked the pork, as it is delicious. I'd suggest cooking a handful of thinly julienned Asian radishes in it for a perfect soup.

Note that the lots of garlic is called for. But at the same time, it is subtly tamed with an ice water bath. Raw garlic needs this secret little maneuver to cut back on its gassiness and stickiness, and this in turn allows its perfume to shine. A note on the name: in Chinese, it means "garlic mud" or even "garlic paste," but I've always preferred the garlic here when it's in tiny bits that get a chance to sparkle on the tongue, hence "lava" for the English name.

This is therefore definitely not date night food, unless you both are serious garlic lovers. And if you are, then this will probably prove to be an aphrodisiac. Yibin is also home to the Chinese white liquor known as wŭliángyè 五糧液 (literally, distillation of five grains), and that is actually the ideal accompaniment to this heady pork dish. If you don't have any in the liquor cabinet (do note that it's becoming more available in Chinese markets nowadays), then try serving this with another chilled white liquor like gaoliang, a gin martini, or perhaps even a cold beer.
Thinly sliced cucumbers

Garlic lava pork
Suànní báiròu 蒜泥白肉
Serves 4 to 6

Pork and vegetables:
Around 1½ pounds  (700 g) slightly fatty fresh pork belly or rump or shoulder, with or without the skin
Water, as needed
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
3 star anise
1 tablespoon sea salt
3 to 4 Persian or other seedless cucumbers
1 green onion, trimmed
½ red jalapeño pepper

6 cloves garlic, evenly chopped
Ice water, as needed
1 to 2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce (homemade or store-bought)
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon chile oil (homemade or store-bought), optional
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon pale rice vinegar

Ahhh... the sauce
1. At least 4 hours before you plan to serve this, place the pork in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring the pan to a full boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and blanch the pork uncovered for around 10 minutes. Dump out the water and rinse off both the pork and the pan. Return the pork to the pan and cover it with fresh water, and add the Sichuan peppercorns and star anise. Bring it once more to a full boil and then simmer it or about 20 minutes, add the salt, and then continue to simmer it for another 25 minutes, or until it can be easily pierced in the thickest part with a chopstick. Cool the pork in the strained stock and, if you have the time, refrigerate it in this stock overnight. About an hour before serving, remove the pork to a clean plate, flick off any clingy peppercorns and star anise, pluck out any hairs you might find at this point, and cut the pork against the grain into very thin slices.

2. While the pork is chilling, prepare the cucumbers by trimming off both ends and then using either a mandoline or very sharp knife to cut them into very thin ribbons. Pile these in a serving bowl or lipped plate and chill. Cut the green onion and optional chile pepper into thin rings.
Hot weather delight

3. Place the garlic in a small work bowl and cover with ice water, as this will remove a lot of its stickiness and heat. Just before serving, drain the garlic well in a fine strainer and then mix it with rest of the sauce ingredients, using 1 tablespoon of the sweet soy sauce first, and then tasting the mix to see if the second tablespoon is needed.

4. Fluff up the cucumber ribbons as much as possible to create an attractive nest. Fan the pork slices across the top. Drizzle the sauce over the pork, but not on the cucumbers, so that the green and white of the cukes remain clean. Scoot the chopped garlic over the top of the pork and then scatter the green onions and optional chile pepper over that.


  1. I am SO going to try this when I come across a good cut of pork! Good pork is getting harder and harder to find here, and it's pricy, but it's worth it. I've been crazy Szechuan peppercorn roasted pork too...hmm, maybe I should start looking for pork in the next few days!

  2. I might at that! Garlic makes everything taste amazing after all :)