Bowl-steamed pork belly is one of those Chinese dishes that's so wonderfully complex and convoluted that you just have to surrender to its demands, if you are to properly cook it at all.
The dish has seven steps, many of which are timely and labor-intensive. You start with a slab of fresh pork belly, which must be blanched, fried, soaked, sliced, stuffed with delicious things, and steamed. I count seven steps, in all, give or take.
It is an awful lot of work for one dish, I'll admit. But I want to at least attempt to convince you that it's worth it.
Without further ado:
1. Blanch a whole piece of pork belly.
2: Fry the skin in a wok.
Look how crispy the skin gets:
3. Take that crispy skin, and make it all wet by soaking it in water.
(Note the puffiness.)
4. Slice the belly thinly, so that each slice has some skin attached.
5. Line up all the slices in a bowl.
6. Top with various accoutrements.
Pickled chilies, pickled mustard greens or mustard green stems, sliced jalapenos or other chilies, and fermented black beans. If you have room, cram some cooked glutinous rice on the very top. You won't be sorry. (This dish, by the way, shows up in several Chinese provinces, and depending on where you are, the flavorings are different. In Sichuan, they use ya cai in the center. In Shanghai, another pickled green may be substituted.)
7. Steam the bowl for two hours.
8. Invert the bowl onto a plate. Eat.
What's astounding about the dish is how very different the layers of meat, fat, and skin taste from when you first started. The lard will render out, leaving the fat of the belly as a translucent web of tissue, more form than substance. It does not taste like the fat in bacon; rather, the has a spongy and light quality to it. And the skin really tastes like tofu skin, if only tofu skin grew on pigs.
And what about the flesh itself? It is spicy and savory. It has a depth that can only be gotten with all those pickled, spicy goods in the center, which during steaming will have commingled with the meat. The black beans will be soft and earthy, good to eat between bites of rice.
One thing that goes into the stuffing is pickled mustard greens (the specific type varies, from Sichuanese ya cai to Shanghainese mei gan cai). When the pork belly steams, its fat renders right into the pickled greens, which in turn become soft and engorged with lard. It's so, so good. And maybe bad for you in large amounts.
My mother doesn't let my grandmother eat the lard-soaked centers anymore, but my grandmother aptly points out that she didn't live through a Japanese invasion and two famines just to be deprived of her lard, now, at this advanced stage in her life. I think that's about right. Amongst lovers of lard, there should be something like the famine exception, permitting any and all future consumption of lard.
Note: If you do not have access to Chinese pickled greens, but most other ingredients, substitute the pickled greens with more cooked glutinous rice and increase the soy sauce by one more teaspoon.
About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.