As winter approaches it's a great time to settle down with some unctuous slow cooked pork dishes. Goz shares the delights of a wonderful Singaporean dish - Mui Choy Kong Bak - Slow Soy Braised Pork Belly served with fennel and mustard greens
When I was growing up in Singapore, for some reason, there was a super duper government movement against fatty foods. We even had a government board set up and probably people sitting around long tables in long meetings plotting the demise of Fat and all things delicious along with it.
And there I was. A young clueless teen. Caught up in between the government’s war against Deliciousness and my mum’s acts of lard-based subversions.
And, being the young impressionable kid I was, watching weeknight 6:30pm cartoons of Captain Planet interspersed with adverts extolling the virtues of a fatless saltless sinless life, compounded with the fact that I was a pimply youth who was ready to do just about anything to get into any girl’s panties (not much has changed), I became a health conscious nut (yes believe or not this fine young man didn’t use to look like tub o’ lard (pun intended)), thinking that maybe if I had a six pack, women would fawn over me and feed me wine and grapes off their lithe bodies. A boy can dream.
So yes, as part of the Adonification process, I used to *deepbreaths* *hang head in shame* scrap off all visible / invisible pieces of fat from all meat. Hell I swear if vegetable had fat I would have been scrapping it off as well.
Then I’m not quite sure what happened. I guess it was that one day when my mum cooked her signature pork belly preserved vegetable dish, saw my plate corner with a little mound, stacked high with little glistening chunks of fat all carefully scrapped off and looked at me as if she had caught me pants down monkey spanking.
“WHAT!?!? WHY DID YOU SCRAPE ALL THE FAT OFF?! IT’S THE BEST PART!!!”
Cue a sheepish “uhm yes sorry mum… uhm… but check out how super fit your son is now look wow! *sheepish* … uhm ok… but it’s so fatty… ok that’s a pretty sad excuse… ok mum… mum are u not talking to me now? Mum?”
So yes, I gingerly spooned pieces of quivering pork belly into my mouth and BAM. That was it. Pork belly. Braised with garlic and preserved mustard greens overnight with a small bunch of dried chilli just for a little baby kick in the back of the throat. The fat and the meat took on all the flavours from the braising liquid and melted in the mouth from hours of braising. It was salty sweet garlicky fat spicy all in one. All the basic food yumminess receptors. It was the beginning of the ruination of my Adonis-like figure (well not that it was anywhere near Adonis). One thing’s for sure, I sure like hell didn’t get any love from any girls but it was definitely the beginning of a long romantic lusty love affair with pork fat.
Now, why fennel? Well fennel has a horrible reputation. Kids and adults alike scrunch up their faces at the thought, let alone the taste of it. Slightly liquoricey, partly star anisey, and totally medicinally. But for some reason, fennel works incredibly well with pork. It cuts through the richness and acts as a nice counterbalance to the fatty pork. This dish traditionally used a fair amount of star anise and I figured why not use fennel instead? Its intense medicinal taste also falls away with the long braising time and actually gives a slightly sweet note to the whole dish. Its also very very much in season now so get in there!
You should be able to find the mui choy (preserved mustard greens) in your standard Chinatown supermarket. In Southeast Asia, most of the time it comes all semi-dried, wrinkly and speckled generously with salt/ sugar just laying there uncovered. But in London (and I would think most of the Western world), it comes vacuum packed and sealed. If you are lucky, there are two versions, Salty and Sweet. I use the Sweet version. If your local Asian supermarket doesn’t have it, write to them, your local MP and boycott them with a vengeance.
For the pork, go to your local butchers and get good free range pork. That extra bit of cash you pay for happy pig meat is worth every penny. The intense marbling of fat double up as couriers of depth and flavour through the pork belly when it breaks down after the slow and low braising.
(Feeds 6 - 8)
1.5kg good marbled pork belly
3 tsp of five spice powder
3 tbsp of dark soy sauce
4 tbsp of sugar
1 bulb of garlic (mashed or finely chopped)
1 tbsp of fish sauce
700g of mui choy (preserved mustard greens)
2 bulbs of garlic
2 tsp of white pepper
4 tbsp of honey/ maltose
2 tbsp of dark soy sauce
6 dried chillis
3 inch stick of cinnamon
3 bulbs of thinly sliced fennel (optional)
The night before
(1) The night before, taking a sharp implement of sorts, frenziedly stab the tough skin of the pork belly repeatedly. You should try to stab it through the skin and the fat but not through the meat.
(2) Then, massage the pork belly all over with five spice powder, dark soy sauce, sugar, garlic and fish sauce. Really rubbing it and getting it in there.
(3) Leave the pork belly skin side up uncovered in the fridge overnight for all those flavours to marinate mingle and get sexy time together.
The morning after
(1) Soak the mui choy in a bowl with sufficient water to cover it. Leave it for half an hour. Then pour away the water, refill and leave it again for another half an hour before pouring away the water. You want to wash away some of the saltiness or else it will be way too salty and kidney failure is a pretty crap gift for your dinner guests.
(2) Then discard the salty water and chop the mui choy into 1 inch chunks.
(3) Heat up a wok filled with an inch of oil.
* TIP: You know the oil is hot enough that when you shove a dry chopstick in, and little air bubbles cling to and stream from the chopstick.
(4) Now take the pork belly out of the fridge, reserving the marinating liquid and gently place it skin side down into the hot oil. BE CAREFUL. It will splatter, splutter, spurt, pop and wheeze like a drunken crazed violent ex-girlfriend so use a cover, splatter screen and/or wear suitable body armour.
(5) Let it deep fry it for about 10 to 15 minutes or until the skin started to crackle and the fat starts to render, checking every couple of minutes. Then flip it over so that it sis now skin side up.
(6) Add the marinating liquid you reserved earlier, the chopped mui choy, the bulbs of garlic, white pepper, dark soy sauce and sugar.
(7) Add boiling water to just below the skin level of the pork belly.
(8) After the contents in the wok comes to a boil, scrap off any bits stuck to the bottom of the wok, making sure you don’t lose any flavor clinging on to the base of the wok. Then drop the stove fire to a gentle flame and let it simmer slowly for at least 6 hours.
(9) Check every other hour that there is sufficient water in the wok and that it is not burning and charring and putting the lives of your family in imminent danger.
(10) After at least 6 hours, taste and season accordingly. I generally like this dish slightly sweet but if you prefer it slightly saltier add more light soy sauce.
(11) Then turn the fire up and boil it hard and fast stirring continuously to ensure that it doesn’t burn and that the sauce slowly thickens and caramelizes.
(12) Take the pork belly out of the pot and slice it into slices.
(13) As a starter/ canapé, you can serve it between Christine’s soft pillowy buns (pun totally intended) (see next recipe).
(14) As a main dish to be served with rice, I like to dish it out on a bed of raw English lettuce cups as the freshness of the lettuce helps cut through the richness of the dish. Ladle a bed of mui choy and rest the pork belly on the top of the mui choy.
There's more delicious pork belly recipes in our collection at Great British Chefs.