Every cuisine has its signature dish—something that's unique, unilaterally enjoyed by its people, and unquestionably delicious. For Taiwanese cuisine, it might just be lu rou fan. Literally "stewed meat rice," lu rou fan is a homestyle dish of minced pork braised in rice wine, soy sauce, water, and five-spice powder until meltingly tender. Due to its similarities to the meaty, Italian-American tomato-based sauce, it was recently dubbed "Taiwanese Ragù" by the organizers of an annual Taiwanese festival that took place last month in New York City.
Lu rou fan can be found in every part of Taiwan, from homes to street vendors' stands to restaurants. That doesn't mean it doesn't have its variations, though. In essence, this meat sauce with rice is a very simple, relatively unrefined classic. But in the south of Taiwan, it's sometimes made with minced or slivered pieces of pork belly rather than the ground pork that's ubiquitous in the north. Sometimes it's served with noodles instead of rice, or used to add a little extra flavor to another dish (the Tainan classic dan zai noodles, for example). Some home cooks like to add chopped pickled cucumbers or shiitake mushrooms to the sauce while it's cooking; others serve these alongside the dish after it's done.
I decided to make the dish two ways, using fresh pork belly for one batch and ground pork for another. The debate over which version is more "authentic" is, in my opinion, irrelevant, since at some point in time, the pork was hand-chopped rather than ground by a machine, so it probably resembled something in between. But while the cut of pork may be a matter of personal preference, I've noted in numerous recipes and tips from Taiwanese cooks that it's ideal to keep the skin on the pork, whether ground or sliced. The skin adds a certain gelatinous quality, that sticky-lips feeling after eating it. It pretty much dissolves into the final sauce, lending its signature viscosity. So if you're getting your ground pork freshly ground from a butcher shop, try to asking them to keep the skin on. Same goes if you're using whole pork belly. Though do try to shave off any remaining prickly hairs on it if apparent. They're gross.
One other pointer is to use fried shallots instead of raw, fresh ones. Golden fried shallots are a common topping in Taiwanese cuisine. I think that starting out with the crispy bits gives the resulting dish a more round, toasty, sweet flavor. Fried, they also melt into the sauce invisibly, which is what you want.
Frying shallots at home will require only a shallow pool of oil, but if you have a deep-fryer, go ahead and heat that up instead. For economy's sake, you can fill a small pot with just an inch of neutral oil (such as vegetable or peanut) or lard (that would be more typically Taiwanese) and heat it to 325o F with the help of a candy thermometer.* Slice the shallots as thinly and uniformly as possible, so as to prevent some from burning while others aren't yet golden (a mandoline helps). Then, drop all the shallots in and stir constantly until nicely golden-brown. Remember, you're not trying to caramelize the shallots by slowly cooking them until soggy and brown. Nor do you want to over-brown or burn them. So keep on stirring until most have developed a golden hue and then transfer them immediately to paper towels. Even if they look slightly soggy at this point, they're sure to crisp up after a few moments out of the oil.
*You can use a regular thermometer instead—just make sure it's placed in the midst of the cooking oil and not touching the bottom of the saucepan.
Because I was making two batches anyway, I figured I might as well throw in another variable. Five-spice powder is commonly used to season this dish. But if you have a healthy spice cabinet, you could infuse your stew with the full-bodied flavor of whole spices instead. This gang of five includes cinnamon, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, cloves, and fennel seed. You could grind these all up in a spice grinder, but since I grew up throwing lone five-star anise cloves into pots of red-cooked Chinese stews, I decided to leave it, as well as a cinnamon stick, whole in one of my versions. The cloves, fennel seed and Sichuan peppercorn I crushed, since they're too small and difficult to pick out of the final dish. So my lu rou fan with ground pork got a dose of store-bought five-spice powder and the version with slivered belly was treated with my own ground mix, along with one cinnamon stick and a five-star anise.
In the end, I'd like to say that I could taste the difference between the two. But that would be a lie. I will say that I enjoyed the pork belly version more, but that's probably because all the extra work of hand-slicing the meat. That said, the ground meat version really grew on me—maybe because it was just easier to slurp up. If you're wondering why I sliced the pork belly into long slivers instead of hacking away at them with a cleaver into more manageable bits, it's because a Taiwanese chef once told me that it's ideal to retain the layering of fat, meat, and skin on each individual piece of pork belly, while cutting them as thinly as possible. So, while it was certainly more labor intensive, that textural contrast in every piece was a definite highlight.
So, to each version, its own successes. No matter how you slice it, lu rou fan is great for keeping on hand in the refrigerator or freezer. Heat it up whenever you want to spruce up a bowl of noodles or a sautée of veggies, or go the traditional route and serve it with rice as part of a multi-course meal.