Monday, February 16, 2015

A delicious case for pig ears

"Should anyone ever invite you to sample pressed pig's ear, think very carefully before putting it in your mouth. If chewing on something with the texture of raw kneecap and the flavor profile of a vinyl raincoat appeals, then clearly that pressed pig's ear is for you. Don't hold back. Knock yourself out. Otherwise I can't recommend it."

So writes the very funny Jay Rayner about his search for the perfect meal in The Man Who Ate the World. That London Chinatown restaurant must have done something terribly wrong, because he goes on to write,  "I don't care if it's what real Chinese peasants eat. I don't care if Shanghai is overrun by earless pigs because it's so popular. It's horrible and I won't eat it ever again."

Almost Art Deco
I'm so happy that I fell in love with pig ears long, long before I happened to read his words. In Taipei, I enjoyed them in my favorite Hunan restaurants sliced into razor-thin shreds, tossed with a confetti of green onions, and glistening with smoky chili oil. 

At the Shanghai-style place downtown, they were always dark and deeply redolent of soy and warm spices, the cartilage a soft afterthought in the warm pile of pillow-soft slices drizzled with sesame oil and spiked with star anise.

But one place in particular made them in a way that still gives me tingles of pleasure: it was an underground shrine to the greatness that is Jiangsu's cuisine on the East China coast. It was a place where every dish, no matter how small or cheap, was an excuse for the chef to pull out the stops. In his version, the pale ribbons were encased in a cool gelee that tasted of Shaoxing rice wine, soy sauce, and spices. A touch of ginger could be felt if you paid special attention, and they were invariably fanned out like Art Nouveau-patterned dominoes on a white plate with a shallow saucer of dark vinegar and finely shredded young ginger.
These are almost sexy

Turning a pig's ear into a work of art is (in my book, at least) a sign of genius. Today's dish is one such masterpiece.

A lot of this has to do with where the dish came from. In the north part of Jiangsu province lies one of the culinary motherlodes of the entire world: Yangzhou. This city is practically unknown outside of China, but to a people who love to eat like no other, Yangzhou is pretty close to heaven on earth.

In fact, this entire area -- from Anhui and Henan in the west and stretching out along the Yangtze River all the way to the Pacific Ocean at Shanghai -- is remarkably inventive with its abundant ingredients, plus its chefs are somehow blessed with the ability to turn even the least important part of animals into divine dishes that defy you not to fall in love.

Which leads us to Suqian. A few miles north of Yangzhou in Jiangsu's northern culinary wonderland lies a city that been occupied pretty much constantly for at least 50,000 years. Part of this has to do with the freshwater lakes and the many rivers that have supplied humans for millennia with great things to eat. And it also has to do with the local salt deposits, one of those singular magnets for humans throughout history. Whatever it is, the food in this area of China is magnificent.

The thing that never ceases to amaze and inspire me, though, is what the people around here have done with this abundance. In a place where food is so plentiful and good, you might expect waste on the level of the average American. But here, even the most peripheral parts of the pig are prized.

Pig ears. To most Westerners, those are doggy treats and little more. But when a good chef from Suqian (or just about everywhere else in China, for that matter) gets hold of some fresh ears, that is a time when diners should perch happily on their seats, for something good is about to happen.
If you've never had pig ears before, a bit of explanation is in order as to why in the world people would want to not only cook with them, but actually stick them in their mouths. They don't look very encouraging -- there's no denying these look and feel like pig ears because even the skin is still on them -- and there's little meat to be had. 
The base of a pig's ear

In these triangular appendages there's a fine layer of muscle down toward the bottom near where the ear attaches to the head so that they can be flapped around to scare off flies. But soon the muscle (aka meat) disappears and both the cartilage and skin take over. In fact, if you cut an ear in half down the middle, you'll see little but a tough white layer of cartilage (that's what allows the ears to be perky instead of flapping around the pig's face like a basset hound) enclosed on both sides by white or pale pink skin. You might very well ask, what could be tasty about that? Therein lies the magic.

The cartilage and the skin are tough, no doubt about it, but a slow simmer turns the stiff center into a barely crisp layer and the skin into a trembling mass that leaches collagen into the stock, making an aspic-like gelatin. That's the easy part. What a good Jiangsu chef does is then transform it from humble to divine.

After a quick blanching to remove any impurities, the ears are slowly, gently poached in a heady broth filled with spices and aromatics. These seep into the pores and insinuate themselves into every bit of that skin. The slow heat breaks down the cartilage, too, and turns it so soft and malleable that the ears become as relaxed as a sleeping cat. They then fold into beautiful patterns, curling and bending and making this a remarkably gorgeous dish.

But what about the flavor? That lies solely in the sauce. Pig ears have little flavor on their own, and like tendons and swallow nests and shark fin and fish stomachs, they are along for the ride mainly for their texture and collagen. A master chef will take these blank canvases and then exalt them into China's culinary stratosphere via balanced flavors that heighten the textures, encouraging these tough cookies to soften up and turn from inedible into delightful.

Here, the good folks of Suqian rely on a vibrant braising sauce of soy, Shaoxing rice wine, a touch of sugar and vinegar, and a whole bunch of spices and aromatics. I've subbed in some oyster sauce, which adds a very ancient echo of the sea, and a small touch of dried chili peppers to bring a slight afterburn on the palate, waking it up and making the mouth ask for more.

This needs nothing more than some thinly julienned green onions or young white ginger, plus some dark vinegar to balance out the flavors and add a refreshing touch.

I feel your pain, Mr. Rayner. But trust me: close your eyes, open wide, and try this.

Pig ear gelee Suqian style
Sùqiān zhūěr dòng 宿遷豬耳凍 
The main ingredient

Serves 8 to 12 as an appetizer

Pig ears:
3 fresh pig ears
Boiling water
1 teaspoon sea salt

4 green onions, trimmed
1 piece of fresh ginger the size of an egg, peeled
2 dried Thai chilies
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
6 whole star anise
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
½ cup Shaoxing rice wine
½ cup oyster sauce
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
Freshly-ground black pepper to taste
Filtered water

Dipping sauce:
1 green onion, trimmed OR 1 small finger of young white ginger
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons rice or apple cider vinegar

1. Start this at least a day (and up to a week) before you want to serve it. Scrub the ears well and trim off any less-than-perfect spots. The tips of the ears can be dark and there can be natural pigmentation on the skin, as these will disappear once the ears are cooked. Don't worry about any very fine hairs, as most of these will loosen and fall off as the ears simmer away.

2. Place the ears in a medium saucepan and cover with boiling water; add the salt. Bring the water to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the ears for about 10 minutes, and then drain them in a colander set in the sink. Rinse the ears with cool running water and let them drain.
Cook til totally tender

3. Cut the onions into 2-inch lengths and slice the ginger into thin pieces. Break the chilies in half and shake out the seeds. Place the green onions, ginger, chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, and star anise in a wok without any oil and heat them over medium-high for a few minutes to release their fragrance. Add the rest of the sauce ingredients up to the black pepper and then place the blanched ears in the pan. Pour in enough water to cover the ears by about half an inch. Bring the pan to a full boil and then reduce the heat to very low so that the sauce is barely bubbling around the edge. Cover the pan lightly so that the steam can escape, and cook the ears for around 4 hours, adding a bit more water as needed to keep the ears covered. Test the ears by piercing the base of the ears with a wooden chopstick; it should easily go through, but the skin on the ears should not be falling apart.
Submerge the ears

4. While the ears are cooking, prepare a loaf pan (just about any size is fine) by rinsing it out with water. When the ears are done, carefully lift them up one by one with chopsticks and a slotted spoon, and shake off any of the spices or aromatics. Place the ears in the loaf pan, scooting them around so that they are folded and curled rather than lying flat.

5. Use a fine strainer to strain the sauce into another pan; discard the solids. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Bring the sauce to a full boil over high heat and skim off any foam or scum that forms. Reduce the sauce to about 2 cups; it should be shiny and thick, like hot molasses. Pour this over the ears in the pan. Use a spatula to gently press down on the ears to release any air bubbles and to make them as submerged as possible in the sauce. Let the pan come to room temperature, cover, and chill overnight.

6. Run hot tap water over the bottom and sides of the loaf pan to help loosen the gelee. Plop it out onto a cutting board and then slice it however you like. (I prefer to cut the gelee in half lengthwise and then crosswise into ½-inch slices.) Arrange the slices attractively on a serving plate.

7. Finely sliver the green onion or young ginger and place it in a shallow saucer or a small bowl. Pour the vinegars around the julienne and then serve it alongside the gelee as a dip. Small shards of the ginger or onion should be plucked up when the gelee is dipped so that tiny contrasting tastes are had with each bite.


Pig ears can be found at specialty butcher shops, as well as at Chinese and Latino markets. They will be either fresh or frozen.

Floppy cooked ears
The entire boned pig face can be cooked this way, too, and offers even more meat and interesting textures; the sauce and dipping sauce will have to be increased accordingly, of course, but otherwise it is basically cooked the same way.

Do not add any oil to the cooking or dipping sauces, as one of the charms of this dish is its light, fat-free flavor and texture. It seems odd, as it is pork, but the flavors should be pure and clean, and the absence of fat is what allows this to happen.

Be sure and keep the ears barely simmering rather than boiling. If the heat is too high, the gelee will be cloudy at the very least, and even worse, the ears might become mushy or scorched.

This dish keeps well for many days in the refrigerator, which makes it an excellent candidate for busy dinners.

The Sichuan peppercorns are added to dishes like this to help get rid of fusty pork smells, so you won't really taste them. Rice wine performs a similar role here, acting more as a deodorizer than a dominant flavor.

Don't add more chilies to the sauce, even if you are a dedicated lover of capiscum, for they would overpower the flavors and textures.