Monday, March 5, 2018

Taiwanese fried pork chops & mustard pickles

When I lived in Taiwan back in the late seventies and early eighties, this kind of pork chop could be found on almost every street and alley. I don’t think anyone ever got tired of it. I certainly haven’t. Forty years later and I’m still a major fan.

Like the popcorn chicken featured here a couple of years ago, this is a simple dish of marinated meat that is coated with sweet potato flour and then deep-fried. 
Pound the chops into thin cutlets

But because the chops are first beaten to a fare-thee-well, their corrugated surfaces first soak up a considerable amount of marinade, and that in turn acts as a glue that binds the dry sweet potato flour (aka sweet potato starch) to the chops.

Also like the popcorn chicken, Taiwanese pork chops are a study in texture, namely a resounding crunch that yields to an almost chewy interior and then a juicy taste of meat. 

The chops are always cut into strips for easy chopsticking (is that a word?). They are also almost invariably served on top of a big mound of hot rice with a side of Taiwanese mustard pickles and a couple pieces of stir-fried bok choy.

Pork chop vs. cutlet
This is to die for.

Taiwanese fried pork chops
Táishì zhá páigŭ 台式炸排骨
Serves 4

Pork chops:
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
3 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne, optional
A gorgeous marinade
Freshly ground black pepper
2 boneless pork chops (around 12 ounces | 350 g)

½ cup | 60 g sweet potato flour (also known as sweet potato starch) or tapioca flour, or as needed

Frying oil

Taiwanese mustard pickles:
1 head (about 9 ounces | 250 g) Taiwanese style pickled mustard
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
3 dried Thai chiles, broken in half and seeds discarded
1 tablespoon mild rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar

1. First prepare the marinade for the pork chops by mixing together in a medium work bowl the minced garlic, soy sauce, rice wine, five-spice, optional cayenne, and black pepper to taste.

Set your board on a wet towel
2. Prepare a work surface for pounding the chops by first wringing out a wet towel and laying it flat on your counter. Set a heavy plastic chopping board on top of the moist towel, as this will anchor it to your counter, and you will then be able to smack the chops with abandon.

3. Wipe the chops dry with a paper towel. Working on one piece at a time, lay the chop on your board and use the FLAT side of a heavy knife (not the blade!) to whack up and down the chop so that the entire surface becomes tightly ridged. Turn the chop 90° and whack it in the other direction. Use the outermost flat corner of your knife to really work on any streaks of fat, as that is where the tendons hide. Turn the chop over and repeat this. 

Cutlets in the marinade
4. Then, turn the chop 45° and make your whacks at one angle and then the other, up and down the chop; turn the pork over and do this on the other side. When you are finished, your chop should be thin and look almost fluffy, but not falling apart. Dip the chop in the marinade to coat both sides. Now repeat this step with the other chop. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes and up to a couple of hours. While the pork is marinating, prepare the Taiwanese pickles below.

5. Pour the flour into wide bowl and have a large plate or baking sheet set on the side. All of the marinade will have been soaked up by the chops, so simply dip one of the chops in the flour, carefully coating it completely. Gently shake off any excess, set the chop on the prepared plate or sheet, and repeat with the other chop.

6. Pour about ½ inch | 1 cm oil into a wok or wide frying pan and set it over medium-high heat. When a chopstick inserted in the hot oil immediately is covered with bubbles, slide one of the chops into the oil so that the meat lies flat. Cover the wok or pan with a spatter guard and fry the pork until it is golden brown and crispy on both sides. Remove the chop to a clean cutting board, and when it is cool enough to handle, chop in widthwise into strips. Repeat with the other chop. Serve the fried chops as is, or over a mound of hot rice with Taiwanese pickles and stir-fried bok choy.
Savory & crunchy

Taiwanese stir-fried mustard pickles
Chăo suāncài  炒酸菜
Makes about 2 cups | 250 g

1 head (about 9 ounces | 250 g) Taiwan pickled mustard, or suancai
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
3 dried Thai chiles, broken in half and the seeds discarded
1 tablespoon mild rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar

1. Rinse the pickled mustard under cool tap water and squeeze it dry. Cut the stem end in half and cut the stems into thin slices, about ¼ inch | 5 mm wide. The leaves are wide and floppy, so slice them lengthwise into pieces about 1 inch | 2 cm thick and then crosswise into thin slices.

2. Pour the oil into a wok, add the chiles, and set this over medium-high heat. Stir the chiles as they cook, and when they have started to blacken, add all of the pickled mustard. Stir-fry the pickles to remove their raw flavor, about 5 minutes. Add the rice wine and sugar, toss well, and taste. They should be just right at this point, but adjust the seasoning as you wish. Cool the pickle and refrigerate it in a jar, where it will stay perfect for a couple of weeks.