Though I was determined to buy fish one morning, a display of hanging sausages distracted me on my way to the market. Strings of lop cheung flecked with fat dangled on a wooden dowel. Beneath the sausages, sections of smoked pork belly with skins still attached were piled in a large bin.
Smelling the sweet, porky aroma of lop cheung always makes me want to cook the links with rice in a clay pot. The slow heat of a clay pot coddles the rice, which, when simmered alongside the lop cheung, absorbs the meaty depth of the sausage.
A well-cooked pot of rice is no small feat. Like paella, the best part of claypot rice is its crust—that bottommost layer of scorched rice, deeply golden brown with just a bit of char. Hard and shriveled, the cooked sausages exude a great deal of fat, which may be used to sauté the grains of rice before simmering. Cooking rice in a clay pot may be a slow process, but the result is worth every effort.
A crust nearing completion will begin to scorch just slightly, and in the process, the smoky perfume will infuse the entire pot of rice. While you can use almost any type of earthenware to cook the rice, Chinese sandpots are readily available and inexpensive. All earthenware is good—much more so than the carbon steel used to make paella pans—at encouraging the development of crusts. This feature is due largely to the excellent heat conduction of clay.
While not all earthenware can be set directly over the stove, Chinese sandpots will heat evenly and slowly, even as the bottom of the vessels come into contact with fire. (Thanks to clay's heat-retaining abilities, there's another perk: you can cook and eat from the same vessel. Simmered and served in clay, the rice and lop cheung seems to stay warm indefinitely at the table.)
Once you've mastered the timing for the crusts, a world of claypot cookery awaits. Use meat stock instead of water for an extra boost of flavor. Add finely chopped greens or diced mushrooms before you cover the pot.
Finally, resist the temptation to peek inside or stir the ingredients too often. The cooking environment inside the sand pot is delicate (a tiny hole on the lid monitors the steam within). Lift the lid too often and the crust and tender interior of the rice cannot develop as one.