As a first generation Chinese immigrant growing up in New York City, I remember a very frugal childhood. My mom cooked every single night and we never ordered delivery. Never.
Oftentimes I feel guilty Scotch and I order food for delivery. For the price of one large pizza with wings and a soda – which I can devour in one sitting – my mom could make a meal to feed our family of five for three days.
Sometimes, on weekends, mom would splurge a bit and buy takeout roast pork (“siew yoke”) from Chinatown. I say splurge but a large container of roasted meat with rice, enough to feed 2-3 people, would cost about $5. The price hasn’t changed much these days.
Every weekend, my parents and I would made the weekly 30-minute drive from our home in Brooklyn, crossing over to Manhattan over the East River via the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridge, so that we could go food shopping in Chinatown. Although there were supermarkets like C-town, Walbaums, Key Food and Pathmark closer to our house, the products sold there were foreign to my mom and the prices far more expensive than what was available in Chinatown.
Dad always drove and mom would sit in the back to supervise my two younger sisters so I always got to ride shotgun. I recall staring out the window, watching the same scenery of houses, storefronts, and billboards go by every week, and wondering when I would grow up to be a big girl and see the world.
Sometimes the lyrics from Beauty and the Beast would repeat in my head for the whole ride, “I want adventure in the great wide, somewhere. I want it more than I can tell…” Little did I know then that I would one day marry a hotelier and move away from my New York home to live in places like Puerto Rico and now, Dubai.
Upon arriving in Chinatown, I recall dads attempts at finding parking in a highly congested area. Often, he give up after driving in circles for an hour and would park by a fire hydrant. Mom would hop out of the car and spend the next hour food shopping while the rest of us would stay in the car to be on the lookout for the “Chocolate Man” making his rounds.
No, there wasn’t a man going around handing out chocolate – if only! “Chocolate Man” was the term we used for the parking police because in those days they dressed in brown uniform. Since it was illegal to park by a fire hydrant, we had to quickly drive off if we saw an approaching traffic cop or risk getting fined.
After mom was finished with the food shopping, she would ask dad what he wanted for dinner. Most post-shopping days mom did not cook dinner. After walking around for an hour or so, making multiple trips to carry food-laden bags back to the car, she was tired and didn’t want to spend the evening cooking.
Sometimes dad would suggest Vietnamese takeout or seafood with noodle soup. Other times he would request siew yoke, which in Cantonese means “fire meat” so essentially roasted meat. Mom would then buy a container of roast pork and roast duck, and sometimes char siew, another favorite of mine. We would bring the meat home and reheat it in a toaster oven to re-crisp the skin – I would often sneak pieces of the pork crackling into my mouth before it even made it to the dining table.
A few weeks ago during a dinner with Dubai-based food bloggers, I was asked if I knew where to get siew yoke here in Dubai. I think my eyes widened and my lips parted into a silent “ooooh” as the taste memory came back to me of crispy pork crackling on a juicy layer of fat resting on layer of moist and tender meat. Then my face fell and I saddened at the thought of not knowing where in Dubai I could possibly get this totally non-halal item of amazingness.
After that dinner, the thought of pork belly crackling pervaded my mind night and day. Then one fateful morning at Waitrose, I walked into the Pork Section and saw a large slab of pork belly. Usually the pork belly is cut up into strips 2″x7″ but this was the first time I had seen it in such a big piece. How could I not buy this?!
I quickly threw the pork belly into my shopping basket and a bubble of excitement started to build in my tummy. When I got home, I rinsed it and patted it dry with paper towels and then placed it in the fridge uncovered so that the skin could dry out completely. I had a prior engagement for dinner that night and couldn’t marinate it right away.
The next night, I created the marinade and poured it all over the meat. Still another 24 hours to go before roasting time. I wasn’t sure I could wait but it had to be done.
I was about to score the skin, lamenting how despite having a Stanley knife, the process seemed like it would take forever but then I noticed that the belly had already been scored – perfect linear scoring 1 cm apart – hurrah! Properly scored skin is one of the factors that contribute to beautiful crackling. Can you see the scored lines below?
The next evening, I popped the pork into my oven and soon the the smells of Chinese five-spice powder and the sounds of crackle-crackle-crackle filled my apartment. For the last 20 minutes or so, I found myself glued to the oven door just watching the skin-bubbling action. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening – I kept praying that the meat and skin would come out as good as I had remembered it.
I had read somewhere that the pork skin had to be charred for perfect crackling so here’s what the pork looked like after an hour in my oven. I pulled it out before it was completely charred as I was worried about that middle bit getting too burnt:
I used a small serrated bread knife to scrape off the charred bits and here’s what the skin looked like when I was done:
I thought the Chinatown siew yoke from my childhood was pretty amazing but WOW! To eat crackling that has just come out of the oven in all it’s crispy crunchy glory was like kicking it up to the infinity notch.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.
After slicing up the pork into bite-sized pieces, I popped one in my mouth and it must have crunched for 10 seconds and each crunch was a world of satisfaction and happiness in itself. One side of my mouth did all the crunching while the other side bit down again and again on the fabulous fatty later and amazingly tender meat. Bilateral food action at its best 🙂 .
Eyes closed and lost in euphoria, all thoughts of the outside world and how many calories I just consumed became nothing. All I could think of was the next bite and before I knew it my hand was already reaching for the next piece…again and again…
This kind of food amazingness should not be experienced alone! I shared with Wee Scotch that day but as much of a budding gourmande that he is, he’s barely 18 months and too young to really appreciate pork belly glory to its fullest. I shared with Scotch but by the time he came home from work 7 hours after the pork had come out of the oven – the crackling, though still amazing, was only a shadow of its former crunchy self.
So I asked a friend to host a cooking demo at her place and I bought over 3 kg of pork belly to roast in her oven. A few other friends dropped by and when the belly was roasted, sliced and ready to be eaten, I eagerly watched everyone’s faces when they popped that first piece of crackling into their mouth anticipating the wide eyes and the “mmms”.
Amazing-ness attained by all? Check.
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Chinese Roast Pork Belly - "Siew Yoke"
- 1.5 kg pork belly
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons miso or 2 cubes of red fermented bean curd (“nam yu”)
- 1 tablespoon ginger , minced
- 2 tablespoons Scotch whisky (or Chinese rice wine)
- 1 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon course ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1/4 cup vinegar (white distilled or cider)
Wash the meat and pat dry with paper towels.
Score the skin 1cm apart with the tip of your knife or a Stanley knife, diagonally or lengthwise, but do not cut through to the meat. Or ask your butcher to do the scoring.
In a bowl, combine all the marinade ingredients and mix well.
On a pan large enough to fit the pork belly, place the pork skin-side down and spread the marinade all over the meat-side only.
Turn the pork over so that the skin side is facing up.
Sprinkle sea salt over the skin and rub it all over skin with your hands. The more thorough you are with the salt, the better it will crisp up.
Place the meat in the fridge, uncovered and overnight, to marinate and to dry out the pork skin.
Remove pork from fridge 1 hour before roasting.
Preheat oven to 200C (400F) and set the oven rack in the middle position. Place a roasting tin (cover with tin foil for easy clean-up later and fill it with 1 cup of water) on the bottom of the oven to catch the pork drippings. The water will prevent the drippings from smoking up your entire kitchen and house.
Scrape off and discard excess marinade as you transfer the pork belly directly onto the center rack of the oven.
Roast for 30 minutes. Open the oven, slide the rack out slightly and baste the pork skin all over with vinegar. Then move the oven rack higher up so that the pork is about 6-8 inches away from the top heating element.
Turn the oven heat to maximum and roast for another 30 minutes. The exact timing will depend on your oven temperature and how dry and well-scored the pork skin was. The pork skin needs to char for supreme crispiness so monitor it carefully for the last 10 minutes. You will scrape off the charring later.
When the pork skin is sufficiently charred, remove pork from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Scrape off charred bits (best with a serrated knife).
With a very sharp knife or meat cleaver, cut into serving pieces. Try to keep the skin attached to the meat as you cut by chopping the skin instead of slicing.
Now bite into a piece for “quality control” and enjoy the crunching!
Most Chinese recipes call for red fermented bean curd (“nam yu”) but I substituted miso because that’s what I had on hand. If in Dubai, be sure to buy British pork as the Kenyan and Brazil pork products we get here are not as tasty.