Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Hunan's pumpkin stuffed with spicy rice crumb pork

Before we continue on our look at south-central China's cusines, I'm going to take a quick detour north to another chili-loving paradise before returning to Guizhou, Guangxi, and then Yunnan. 

There's a reason for this: it's getting close to autumn -- we're less than a month away from the Moon Festival on September 30th this year -- so pumpkins have started showing up in the markets. And I can never wait to get my hands on a really fresh, beautiful kabocha when they are still heavy and juicy from the field.

Just such a thing happened the other day when a pile of kabochas and other pumpkin-like squashes caught my eye between a bin full of mauve-skinned sweet potatoes and a dangerously high stack of yellow onions. I couldn't resist. This pumpkin was a beaut of a thing, speckly green with a twisting stem that spoke of happy growth in some sandy land, with just enough water to make it grow perfectly round. 

Cut a fancy edge...
And I knew exactly what I was going to make with it: a delightful banquet dish from the chili-laced kitchens of Hunan, one that always makes me think of cool Taipei fall weather when hearty fare and deep aromas summoned me into the depths of my favorite haunt for dishes that tasted of the capital city of Changsha. These were restaurants where the owners and the chefs were born and bred on chilies back on the Mainland, and no shortcuts were permitted in their kitchens.

You see, back in the Seventies, Taipei still reveled in the mastery of great chefs who had fled the Communist takeover in China.  That was bad luck for the food lovers left in China, but it was incredibly good luck for me.

One of the absolute undeniable perks of my job as an interpreter for a museum and the library there was that I got to eat amazing, world-class, insanely good classics that had pretty much disappeared everywhere else on the globe. I'd be hauled along on some dinner for foreign dignitaries where I always tried to pay enough attention to the drift of the conversation that I could keep up a running translation, but come on, I was there for one reason and one reason only: the food.

and you get this!
Both the museum and the library directors were from the Yangtze River area, so we could count on hitting all of the best Jiangsu and Zhejiang-style palaces in town. It didn't hurt that Chiang Kai-shek -- Taiwan's strongman and Mao Zedong's sworn enemy -- was from the same area, so the flavors of Suzhou and Hangzhou and Shanghai and all the other great capitals of East China's elegant cuisines were always in good supply.

But I also had another partner in culinary crime who would take me to the spicy joints and chili-laden places of fine dining whenever the choice was up to her: my immediate boss at the library and fellow heat lover, Teresa. As I've mentioned in the past, my Spice Girl girlfriends are legion, packing away anything hotter than hot with a charming combination of ladylike aplomb and undisguised gusto.

One thing that these friends turned me on to was spicy pork coated in rice crumbs. And life has never been the same. This is fever-dream food, serious culinary genius, the kind of stuff that you'd think about if you were stuck on a desert island and surviving on nothing but fish and coconuts. But it's also so easy that you'll have a raving success your first time around.

A few months ago we featured a Beijing-style dish of duck and rice crumbs steamed in lotus leaves, and this pretty much follows the same principles. In fact, the rice crumbs are exactly the same.

But while the northern-style dish was mellow and refined, with only the duck meat and sweet wheat paste making much of a statement, this dish is a riot of colors and flavors and textures.

Marinating pork shoulder
Another skill that we've looked at before will serve you in good stead here, for carving a watermelon is almost exactly the same thing as carving a pumpkin, only with the pumpkin it's a little bit easier since you just have to scoop out the seeds rather than all of that melon.

The meat is seasoned in a salty, spicy marinade, and then rolled in the rice crumbs and steamed until cooked through. Then, it is packed into a hollowed out pumpkin and quickly steamed to both flavor and cook the pumpkin flesh. 

The magic happens at serving time. First, you get this blast of steam and vibrant zig-zags of orange pumpkin against the dark green skin, with a reddish brown tumble of meat and rice.

But that's only the beginning, for the pumpkin is sweet and mellow and soft, making it a perfect foil for the meat. In fact, I usually prefer to eat this dish as is without any rice because it is just an ideal balance of meat, starch, and vegetable.
Secret ingredient: mushrooms

And if that was not enough of a selling point, you should know that this dish only improves if you make it a day ahead of time. That extra 24 hours gives the pumpkin time enough to get acquainted with the spicy meat, and it absorbs those flavors, as well as the buttery juices from the pork. It's utterly sublime then, and if you use a kabocha as your pumpkin of choice, you'll even be able to eat the skin, as it becomes just as tender as the flesh.

The meat, of course, is open to lots of interpretations. Fatty short ribs or baby back ribs are wonderful here, as are beef or chicken or even bean curd. The main thing to keep an eye on is the fat level, because you need that oily moisture to make each mouthful worth a moan of pleasure. So, if you use a lean cut of meat or some tofu batons, add more peanut oil to the marinade to balance out the levels. Remember that when it comes to ratios of fat to the rest of the other ingredients, this is a whole lot like a confit, and there's no such thing as a low fat confit.

One of the two things I've done here that is a bit out of the ordinary is to add fresh mushrooms to the mix. They add an almost fatty mouthfeel to the meat, acting as soft pillows that add another layer of flavor while soaking up the marinade. 

Tying the string around the pumpkin and plate is the other one of my own humble contributions, and it's very important here because it accomplishes two things. 

Toss with rice crumbs
First, this allows you to easily remove the pumpkin from a deep steamer without burning yourself; just hook a big fork on the knot and lift. Second, since the kabocha turns tender after 20 minutes in the steamer, if you don't have a plate underneath the squash, the string will slice it into wedges while it's still in the steamer, and then you'll have an unholy mess on your hands. I must be allowed to boast: this invention of yours truly is extremely useful. Too bad they don't award Nobel Prizes in the field of food...

As the days cool down and the nights grow longer, this is one terrific dish to rely on when company comes calling. Just don't tell them how easy it is.

Spicy crumb pork in a pumpkin 
Fenzheng nangua zhong  粉蒸南瓜盅 
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, 4 as a main dish

Pork and marinade:
14 to 16 ounces pork butt (i.e., shoulder), pork ribs, or other fatty meat (see headnotes and Tips)
6 to 8 fresh Chinese black mushrooms
1 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1½ tablespoons finely chopped ginger
2 tablespoons fermented black beans (douchi), coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons Sichuan style hot bean sauce (la doubanjiang)
1½ tablespoons sweet wheat sauce (tianmianjiang)
2 teaspoons sugar
A wedge of autumn flavors
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
3 to 8 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil

Pumpkin and rice:
1 largish kabocha squash or other tasty pumpkin (about 8 to 9 inches in diameter; see Tips)
1 cup Rice Crumbs (double the recipe); spices in the crumb optional

1. Rinse the meat and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the meat or ribs (including all the fat) into pieces about 2 x ½ x ½ inches in size; if the ribs are slightly longer, that's all right as long as they will fit easily into the pumpkin. Clean the mushrooms, remove and discard the stems, and break the caps into halves or quarters, depending upon their size.

2. Mix the marinade in a medium work bowl; taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more hot bean sauce or other ingredients to fit your taste and menu and guests. Add the meat and mushrooms to the bowl, toss, and let the meat soak in there while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. (This can be made up to 8 hours in advance.)

3. Wash the pumpkin and pat dry. Cut the top of the pumpkin in a saw-tooth pattern as was done with the watermelon a few weeks ago; the bottom edge of the lid should be no lower than a quarter of the pumpkin's height. (This means if the pumpkin is 6 inches high, make your lowest edge on the lid no more than 1½ inches from the stem.) Remove the lid, scoop out the seeds and gunk, and you're done. (The pumpkin can be prepared a day or two in advance; just place it in a plastic bag and refrigerate.) Prepare the Rice Crumbs, too. (These can be made weeks in advance; just store in a covered jar in a cool area.)

4. Prepare a deep steamer (see Tips) and bring a couple inches of water to boil in the steamer. Pour the Rice Crumbs into the marinating pork and toss well. Place the coated pork in a heatproof bowl that fits easily in the steamer. Steam the pork for about an hour, or until the meat is tender and the rice is fluffy and flavorful; remove the pork from the steamer, taste it again, and adjust the seasoning (see Tips).

Tie twine around pumpkin & plate
5. Layer the hot steamed pork in the pumpkin; it should fit snugly, but don't smash the pork down. If you have too much or the pumpkin is too small, that's all right: just use this pork to either refill the pumpkin later on or save it for lunch tomorrow. Place the lid on the pumpkin and place it on a heatproof plate that is about the same size as the pumpkin. Then, tie kitchen twine around the pumpkin (see picture on the right) and plate so that the twine securely holds the pumpkin in place. 

6. Add more water to your steamer, bring it again to a boil, and then steam the pumpkin for no more than 20 minutes; check it after 15 minutes. If the skin and flesh can be easily pierced, it's done. Remove it from the heat. You may either serve the pumpkin immediately or let it cool down so that you can refrigerate covered it overnight.


Any nice cut of pork is perfect for this recipe, so see what looks good to you. Again, choose something that has a good ratio of fat to lean; about 1:3 is very nice. If you select ribs, have the butcher saw them into pieces no longer than 2 or 3 inches. Then, cut them apart so that each bone is surrounded by meat and fat. And by the way, for some strange reason "pork butt" comes from the shoulder of a pig, not its hind quarters. Don't ask me why. 

Tie and steam the pumpkin
As with any rice crumb dish, fat is a very important component to its success. That is why tasting the meat once it is finished steaming is so necessary. Taste the meat with special attention, then, to not only the seasonings but how it feels in your mouth. It should have a creamy texture, and the meat should practically melt on your tongue.

The size of the squash really is determined by the size of your steamer. So, measure what you have and choose accordingly. I use a deep pasta pot with a perforated insert. It's certainly not what the manufacturer had in mind, but it works perfectly!

As you can see, this dish can be made over several days, if you like. This makes it great for fancy dinners when your stress level is already in the red.


  1. Autumn is here and I've been looking for ideas on what to do with winter squash. Thank you! BTW, I think I heard you have a cookbook coming out...if these recipes are indication, it should be a doozy!!!!

    1. Wow, what a kind thing to say, Mike. Thank you! And happy autumn!