Eat for Eight Bucks: Pork Belly Sandwiches, Chinese-Style

I don't like the word "fusion" being used to describe cooking, because it implies a combination of ingredients that's contrived. Sure, the Provençal aïoli in these pork belly and steamed bun sandwiches isn't especially traditional—neither, for that matter, is putting Sriracha in Provençal aïoli. But I'm half Chinese and half American, and I live in New York City, where all culinary traditions bleed into one another. This is just how we eat here.

The pork belly sandwich is assembled from four components:

1. Mantou, or Chinese steamed buns, which can be found in the freezer section of most Asian grocery stores. The milk-white buns are fluffy, slightly sweet, and can be as small as an apricot or as large as a fist.

2. Soy-braised pork belly

3. Sautéed, sesame-scented cabbage

4. Homemade chili aïoli

Personally, I live in fear of spectator sports—but I'll venture that these boldly-flavored stuffed buns would make a popular game day dish. I spent $7.44 to make six substantial sandwiches, but, if you buy the miniature steamed buns, you can serve at least double that number as snack-sized "sliders."

The Shopping List

Note: Items bought in large quantities, like the eggs, have been pro-rated for cost. Ingredients a cook can reasonably be expected to have on hand are considered "Pantry Items" and are not factored into recipe cost.

1 pound pork belly - $2.89
Package of 6 mantou, or Chinese steamed buns - $2.99
Half a head of green cabbage - $0.74
Small knob of ginger - $0.15
1 egg - $0.17 (total cost of carton - $1.99)
1 lemon - $0.50

Pantry Items
Garlic, soy sauce, star anise and/or cinnamon sticks and/or five-spice powder, chili sauce, mustard, sesame oil, vegetable oil, sugar, and salt

Total Cost

$7.44

The Star Ingredient

20090129pork_belly.jpg

Pork belly is basically pre-bacon—that is, bacon before it's been salt-cured and soaked in nitrates. Bacon's already pretty cheap, and pork belly is cheaper. Sadly, it's not sold as widely as bacon, and, in the likely scenario that your grocery store does not carry it, you'll have to visit an independent butcher shop. (In Manhattan, I go to Jeffrey's inside the Essex Street Market—he sells it for $2.89 a pound.)

Cheap as it is, pork belly needs long, slow cooking to tenderize its sizable swathe of fat. Fortunately, the majority of the cooking time in today's dish is not active; during the 3-4 hours of braising, you'll only need to worry about periodically replenishing the water.

20090129sandwich_ingredients.jpg

Soy-Braised Pork Belly

- will fill 6 large or 12-15 mini sandwiches -

A note on spices: This recipe calls for either five-spice powder or a mixture of cinnamon sticks and whole star anise. If you don't have these items, experiment with Moroccan spice blend ras-el-hanout, or even toasted coriander or anise seeds and whole peppercorns. Most fragrant, woody spices will work here, even if they're not strictly "authentic."

Bonus: As the pork belly simmers, place a few peeled, hard-boiled eggs in the braising liquid. Remove them after an hour or two, when they have taken on a rich, brown color. These are "soy sauce eggs," a traditional Chinese snack and side dish.

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Eat for Eight Bucks: Pork Belly Sandwiches, Chinese-Style

About This Recipe

Yield:about 1/2 cup
This recipe appears in: This Week in Recipes

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 pound boneless pork belly, cut in three equal-sized pieces
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 sticks cinnamon and 2 whole star anise or 1 tablespoon five-spice powder (see "A note on spices", above, for other spice options)
  • 3 1/3-inch slices peeled fresh ginger
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • Water
  • Half a head of green cabbage, very finely shredded
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Salt
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup neutral-flavored vegetable oil, such as canola
  • 2 cloves garlic, very finely minced
  • Fine salt
  • Chili sauce or cayenne pepper to taste

Procedures

  1. 1

    In a large Dutch oven or wok, heat oil and sugar over medium-high heat, swirling vessel until sugar liquefies and turns a warm amber color.

  2. 2

    Place pork belly slices in wok and sear on all sides, about 1 minute per side, using tongs to turn.

  3. 3

    Pour enough cold water into vessel to cover the pork. Add soy sauce, spices, ginger, garlic, and salt. Bring to a boil and skim any scum that rises to the surface. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 3-4 hours, until pork is very tender and fat is easily penetrated with a spoon. If water level falls during cooking, replenish so that pork remains submerged.

  4. 4

    Remove pork belly and set aside. Strain solids from braising liquid and return liquid to pan. Over high heat, reduce until lightly thickened and glossy. Adjust seasoning if necessary.

  5. 5

    Slice pork into 1/3-inch thick slices. Lightly coat in reduced braising sauce.

  6. 6

    Sautéed Green Cabbage

  7. 7

    - will fill 6 large or 12-15 mini sandwiches -

  8. 8

    Heat vegetable oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add cabbage and sauté until crisp-tender, about 8 minutes. In the last minute of cooking, add sugar and sesame oil and stir to coat. Season well with salt.

  9. 9

    Chili Aïoli

  10. 10

    Whisk together mustard, lemon juice and egg yolk in a bowl.

  11. 11

    Add oil to yolk mixture a few drops at a time, whisking constantly, until all oil is incorporated and mixture is emulsified.

  12. 12

    Whisk in garlic and chili sauce or cayenne pepper to taste. Season with salt. If aïoli is too thick, whisk in 1 or 2 drops of water; it should be creamy, but much looser in consistency than store-bought mayonnaise.

  13. 13

    To Assemble

  14. 14

    20090129sandwich_assembly.jpg

  15. 15

    Serve the sandwiches pre-assembled, or let each person build his own.

  16. 16

    Optional extras: Any kind of Asian pickle, such as picked radish or kimchi; coarsely chopped cilantro.

  17. 17

    On a metal steaming rack or bamboo steamer set over simmering water, steam Chinese buns for 10-15 minutes, until tender and puffy. Slice open, leaving a hinge.

  18. 18

    Spread each bun with chili aïoli; stuff with cabbage, pork belly, and extra condiments, if using; drizzle with the reduced braising sauce. Close bun and gently squish.

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