Like a lot of bacon from around the world, Chinese bacon is made from pork belly and less frequently, from shoulder. It is either air-cured with soy sauce, brown sugar, and spices (like star anise and cinnamon) until it's very hard, or it's cured for a shorter period of time before being smoked.
Call me biased, but Chinese bacon is one of my favorite types of bacon for a few reasons. First, it usually comes with the rind (i.e., skin) still attached, which means you have an extra element of piggy goodness built into your bacon. Second, the spices of Chinese are beguiling much in the same way as red-braised meats—that combination of cinnamon, star anise, and cloves infusing the meat, perfuming the fat so that every bite has a deep, complex flavor.
Chinese bacon can be easily found at most Asian markets. There'll be a variety available: some smoked, some unsmoked, some cured with a "signature" blend of spices and flavors such as wine and fish sauce. I'm partial to the very sweet or very smoky and well-spiced types, though I've never eaten a piece of Chinese bacon that I didn't like. And, since Chinese bacon keeps indefinitely, sometimes without refrigeration (check your packaging), you should buy a variety to taste the differences.
Chinese bacon is sometimes misunderstood by cooks who take home rock-hard pieces of it and assume they should cook with it right away. All Chinese bacon benefits from a long soaking in water, so the meat gets tender without losing any flavor.
Though most packages of Chinese bacon recommend steaming the bacon, I find that doing so renders the fat but doesn't soften the meat enough. To soak meat, simply immerse the pieces of bacon in cold water for at least five hours and up to a day, then proceed with your recipe.
Here are but a few ways to eat Chinese bacon. Chime in with other ideas!
1. Lacquered Bacon. This is my favorite new way to make Chinese bacon—it's also the simplest. After getting a soak in water, bite-sized pieces of bacon are coated in brown sugar and baked. The best part is that the fat rendered from the bacon mixes with the melted brown sugar and produces a kind of caramel that coats the bits of belly and makes them extra crispy and delicious. Get the recipe here »
2. Chinese bacon and brussels sprouts. As Kenji tells us in this recipe, you can use anything fatty and cured, and brussels spouts cooked in Chinese bacon fat are just delicious.
3. Bacon, shiitake mushrooms, and glutinous sweet rice. That classic Chinese combination starts with sweet rice that's usually cooked with the bacon so that the rice can absorb the fat.
4. Chinese stir-fried rice with bacon. Use the bacon fat to stir-fry your rice and eggs.
5. Bacon dashi. This one, from David Chang's Momofuku, uses the smokiness of the bacon as a nice alternative to the fishy flavor of bonito flakes.
6. Chinese bacon in pasta. Think spaghetti alla carbonara, but Chinese-style. Either use Chinese noodles, or just replace the pancetta with Chinese bacon for a different flavor profile.
6. Chinese bacon salad. Like the French favorite frisee aux lardon, except with Chinese bacon. Use salted napa cabbage instead of frisee or dark greens if you want to keep to things from the Asian kitchen.
7. Chinese bacon frittata. Add plenty of cilantro or Vietnamese basil.
8. Chinese bacon risotto. The creamy risotto picks up the spices of the cured Chinese bacon.