Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hakka (Chinese) Mei Cai Kou Rou Or Pork Belly with Sweet and Salty Mustard Greens

     Everyone loves authentic ethnic foods. OK, I cannot speak for peoples other than Americans, and by way of amusement, I did eat in a Chinese restaurant in Guadalajara, Jalisco that served frijoles refritos with the Broccoli Beef Stir Fry.  Here in the USA, it behooves oneself to have a caché Mexican joint to take friends to; and the same hold true for any other ethnic cuisine.

     A decade or more ago, a Chinaman told me about Hakka Cuisine. The Hakka are themselves an ethnic culture within greater China. This gent said that Hakka Cuisine is considered to be a great cuisine to the Chinese. Could 1.2 billion Han be wrong about 80 millions of Hakka?

About that same time, we ate in Monterrey Park;  which is the Chinatown of Los Angeles California, even though, the downtown area has a section named: Chinatown. Not many Chinese live in the area denominated: Chinatown. The Asians are mostly Vietnamese. The Chinese who had lived in downtown left for Monterrey Park, the now authentic Chinatown in Los Angeles. There are several large Chinese supermarkets in Monterrey Park all the ingredients can be found there. I cannot remember any other Chinese meal I've ever eaten as the restaurants aren't that interesting. With the exception of the place that served me:

Mei Cai Kou Rou — 梅菜扣肉
Turn Over Meat — Kiu Ngiuk

The ideographs are the same whether Traditional or Simplified, according to Google Translate.

     I ate this wonderfully flavorful dish, and promptly forgot the name of it. I started to miss it. I want to eat it and year by year, I yearned to have it again. Soul Food. All I could remember was that it was pork belly; known to Americans as bacon. If you shop at a supermarket, from Santa Monica to Manhattan and try to find pork belly, the butcher will show you to the bacon. I love bacon. Smoked, salty, delicious. But it is not pork belly. Pork belly is unsmoked, unsalted meat. It should have the skin on, which for Mei Cai Kou Rou is essential. When I make my own Hungarian style garlic-paprika bacon, I have the butcher cut the skin off. To purchase pork belly, you must shop at an Asian, Filipino or Mexican market.

Dry Rubbed with Salt and 5 Spice
During that decade, since, I've often looked for Hakka recipes on the internet, but to no success until about a year ago. I learned the name of the dish. And got a number of recipes that show the variance in ingredients. I do this to learn the most authentic manner of making a dish. (See Danger! Men Cooking! for Basil Pesto or Ragu Bologonese) In the history of Mei Cai Kou Rou, it was a long slog for me. I had read enough to know that the best or most authentic recipe would require two types of greens. I knew the name of the pickled one, but the salted one remained a mystery, until I picked up a copy of:

Berkeley and Los Angeles : University of California Press, 2012

     In it, the author gives both an explanation of and the way to make the salted green and the pickled green. The Chinese, in my estimation, like vegetables with a pronounced flavor. I'll say sharp but one must taste these before judging. They are not an acquired taste, but one has to be a foodie or at least open-minded about such things.

     The dried (salted) greens are readily available at the better ethnic grocers and one brand is pictured below.

The leaves appear quite dry and yet flexible. The importer is:

Blooming Import Incorporated
45 Bowne St
Brooklyn, NY 11231
(718) 625-6868 

     The pickled mustard greens are easily available sometimes, even made in-house at the Asian grocery.

     A word on Chinese mustard greens - there are many types. An excellent resource on these vegetables is available here. You can see both the Chinese characters and their transliteration. Why?You Ask? is this a discussion? The Hakka, a mountain village people are well known as foragers. Which mustard green these peasants used over the hundreds of years cannot be qualified authoritatively. What can be said is that if the forest offered a green, the Hakka foraged it for food. Does this mean that an almost official Mei Cai Kou Rou recipe cannot be made? No, but finding the right combination of wild growing mustard green could be a serious challenge. I believe your palate will be pleased, never-the-less.
2014 Prices

So, armed with the correct ingredient list, here is my interpretation 

Mei Cai Kou Rou
Steamed Pork Belly in Bitter Greens

A word or two about the brassica juncea from the Wikipedia entry. Zha cai is a type of pickled mustard plant stem (we would say bulb or root) originating from Sichuan, China. Other transliterations might include tsa tsai, jar choy, jar choi, ja choi, ja choy, or cha tsoi. Botanically it is: 

Brassica juncea (L.) Czern. subsp. tatsai Mao with formal 
SYNONYMS : Brassica juncea (L.) Czern. var. tsatsai ined., Brassica juncea (L.) Czern. var. tsatsai Mao, Brassica juncea (L.) Czern. var. tumida N. Tsen & S. N. Lee 

Here is the Chinese characters for this product: 榨菜 and I believe this is the dried or salted product. The pickled (package should have vinegar as an ingredient) is: 梅菜

Please notice very little difference in the 2nd letter, only the first qualified the pickled from merely salted.

I'm no hand at Chinese, so if you are or can help explicate the distinctions between these two similar ingredients, please post a comment.

     Purchase a slab of pork belly — also called uncured and/or unsmoked and/or green pork belly — and to be honest you wouldn't substitute other cuts of pork here. The skin must be on the cut of belly pork. Pigs have about 5 layers of meat and fat. See the photos of my dry rubbed belly, above.

While shopping in Chinatown, I came across the proper salted, dried mustard green. At $8 a bunch it isn't cheap. Updated from the rest of this post on November 3rd, 2014.

Misnomered "Dried Vegetable"

A 2 Day Process or 3 Days if you count shopping

1 slab of pork belly about 2 1/4 lbs. It could weigh up to 3 lbs.

Marinade Ingredients
6 tbs light soy (soya superior on some labels)
2 tbs black soy (contains caramel) and is used mostly for coloring
1/2 cup Shaohsing (alt. spelling: xaoxing or shao hsing) wine - substitute dry sherry
1 bulb of garlic, paste (I like to say smashed)
4 tbsp minced ginger
2 tbsp honey (some recipes call for sugar, palm sugar and others for maltose)
2 tsp Five Spice Powder
2 tsp pepper

     The soy sauce is salt enough to lightly cure the surface of the belly. The device, pictured on the right, is an Italian style garlic mincer and slicer. It also will mush up fibrous ginger with ease, as long as you use small cubes of ginger. Cut the belly into approximately 3″ squares and prick through the skin (it will be tough) with a carving fork, or with a Jaccard Meat tenderizer, put in a bowl and pour the marinade over. If there is an undersized piece, use it too, for a lighter eater. Turn the meat in the marinade once or twice. Refrigerate overnight.

     Next day, remove the meat, drain it skin side up, reserving the liquid, and brush off any garlic or ginger remaining. Allow the meat to air dry about 60 minutes on the rack pictured below. Makes catching spills and drips easier cleanup.

Prep - Cooking Ingredients

1 pot of boiling hot water.

48 fl ozs cooking oil - vegetable, canola or peanut oil - this is necessarily inexact as to the amount. My wok is a different size than your wok. The oil should come to just below half the height of the piece of bacon, when in the wok. More would be better than less.

Prep - Instructions

     In a stock pot, filled with boiling water, add the portioned pieces, and allow the pot to return to a few bubbles forming around the sides of the pot. The meat is to firm up for it's frying and steaming. This is parboiling. With a wok skimmer, or similar tool and a chopstick on top of the meat to stabilize the weight, remove the pieces to a rack, pictured below. Allow the meat to dry or if proceeding immediately, dry thoroughly with paper towels. Putting the meat while water clings to it, into hot oil is dangerous. Pre-heat the oil in the wok, while the pork is par-cooking, if cooking is to be immediately following the par-cooking.

Also called a Spider.

     Into the wok, put the oil. Cover and turn on the heat. Use a bamboo chopstick after 10 to 15 minutes of heating to test for temperature. If bubbles form at the bottom of the chopstick, the oil is hot enough. If you have a deep-fat thermometer, you want 375° F.

     Cook only one piece of pork at a time, turning as necessary to caramelize the meat on all sides. This is termed oil blanching and is somewhat unique to Chinese cooking. Blanch for 2 to 3 minutes per side. Not any longer. The skin side should show blisters. Watch this process carefully, don't walk away form the wok, answer the phone, et cetera. Remove the cooked pork to an aluminum foil lined baking sheet over a wire rack to drain and cool to room temperature before wrapping for later use. The meat can be prepared up to a day ahead of time, wrapped in plastic, and kept refrigerated until ready for the final preparation. If you are proceeding to make the Mei Cai Kou Rou, the portions may be handled with a pair of tongs, but must be allowed to cool for the meat to firm back up before it's final cooking. Allow 60 minutes. Next the portions are sliced, lengthwise in ⅜" thick pieces.  Use a very sharp knife as you will be cutting through the skin. When each portion is cut, stack the pieces as you would a desk of cards.
Nice Rack!
     When you are ready to prepare the Mei Cai Kou Rou, the mustard greens must be soaked in several changes of water to remove the excess salt and dirt. (see photo, below)
Remove the sand and salt grit
If you are preparing the meal immediately after cooking the pork, you must soak the greens beforehand. If you are cooking the meat the next, day, follow these instructions: most authorities soak the greens in water for 15 minutes, changing the water once or twice. Taste a small piece as the waters are changed.¹ The pork must be sliced about ⅜" thick. If the meicai is in long pieces, it must be cut into ¾″ lengths. The consensus is 3 parts salty meicai to 1 part sweet. Most authors seem to prefer a mixture of sweet and salty. The difference between sweet and salty mustard greens is the sweet meicai is made with both sugar and salt while the sour (also called by some authors: salty) has no sugar. Alternatively, the sour has vinegar and the sweet has no vinegar (only salt). This is somewhat confusing as the mustard greens are by no means sweet in the western sense of the word. The way we associate candy as sweet. The flavor profile here is to have more salty than pickled. I would suggest that no other vegetables will do here, either. Fresh brassica (mustard) won't work.

¹ If you find unpackaged dried greens, they must soak for several hours in several changes of water. I believe this will be unlikely unless you are in China.

The Home Stretch

Batterie de Cuisine

Stainless bowl for the greens and pork
A wok set up in steamer mode
A domed wok lid so the steam doesn't dilute the sauce

Not FLAT on top
A pair of kitchen offset kitchen pliers to lift the bowls while steaming hot from the wok.

I found this pair at a Korean supermarket. The dish is given it's name for the fact that as the savory meat and greens is flipped upside down over a bed of rice.

1 package of salted meicai - rinsed
1 package of pickled meicai
1 scallion, cut in thin rounds, on the diagonal - as a garnish

Using your hands, squeeze the excess liquid from the meicai. Reserved. Cut the lengths into approximate ¾" pieces. Mix the salty and sweet greens in a bowl. Strain the soaking liquid through a coffee filter or paper towel. Mix with the reserved marinade and reduce to 1¼ cups over a medium high fire.

I was not able to put more than 2 portions of pork in the wok at a time. Maybe I could have squeezed 3.

Put the belly, skin side down into a bowl or plate, fanned like a deck of cards in one or two rows. Cover with the prepared mustard greens. Add the reduced marinade liquid. Steam 2 to 4 hours. Cooking time not critical, but a minimum of 2 hours. Remove the lid, tilting the top edge up and pull the bottom edged away from being over the food to allow the water to drip back into the wok and not onto the dish. 

Remove the dish, put a plate on top and flip over, standing over the sink or a work area that can catch spills. 

Serve over steaming hot rice.