Saturday, July 24, 2010

Caramelized Pork Belly with Saffron Rice

Caramelized Pork Belly with Saffron Rice
Home Cooking

Red cooked meat is one of my favorite Chinese dishes. I tried to make it once before and it was OK but not amazing. That was over a year ago and recently, I've been feeling dismay over my inability to cook traditional Chinese food. In actual fact, my inability to cook spans indiscriminately over every type of cuisine but it's Chinese food that really bugs me because it's like I've kicked away some cultural heritage? Food heritage is the best kind of heritage.

Everyone does red cooked meat different. Dad told me a story about a guy that grandpa knew. This guy apparently made The Best meat ever. Like, ever. And he was really guarded over his technique but would openly brag about certain elements that made him sound knowledgeable and pro. For example, he would use cloves... and he specified that he only used 7 and a 1/2 cloves. That's right, 7 and a 1/2. And that's not all.

The '1/2' clove had to be a 'female clove' while the others were male cloves. At this point in the story, mum was scoffing and basically saying that this guy is FOS but dad clarified that there does exist male and female cloves. We do have doubts about how these details can make any difference to the dish. It's like when dad used to stir-fry pea sprouts. He'd tell everyone that his special method took exactly 42 seconds, not a second longer or shorter. It's the kind of frill you dress your recipe with to make yourself sound like a cooking superhero.

Back to the red cooked meat. My parents recently had a competition amongst themselves over who could cook the best version. It was fruitless because both thought their own was superior and I honestly liked both. When I decided to make my version, dad was showering me with advice. His top tip was that you must not 'dilute' the pork with water. That means: no washing, no boiling, no adding water to the braising liquid. Wine is used instead and if you're being posh, it should be drinking-grade yellow wine. Not cooking wine.

I listened and remembered but in my version that is blogged today, I ignored both those pieces of advice. Not out of some kind of cooking rebellion but because I tried to follow a recipe on the Masterchef website. This caramelized pork belly was originally cooked by contestant Alvin in the 7 deadly sins challenge. He was trying to portray 'greed' with this dish.

I attempted to follow the recipe to a tee. Seriously, my pork belly was even EXACTLY 1kg. However, through the cooking process, I started to feel like the quantities are seriously flawed. I also skipped/altered some steps. If I was to make this dish again, I'd alter it even more. The recipe I'm going to post below is a recount of what I did, plus notes/recommendations on what I'd change for next time.

Caramelized Pork Belly with Saffron Rice
Serves 4-6

  • 1 kg pork belly
  • 15 black peppercorns
  • 8 cloves of garlic
  • 2L chicken stock (I would use ~ 300-500mL next time)
  • 1 cup of cooking caramel/karamel masaka (bought this from an Asian grocery store)
  • 1 and 1/2 cups of light soy
  • 1/2 cup of oyster sauce
  • 1/2 cup of Chinese cooking wine
  • 1 piece of cinnamon bark
  • 1 whole star anise
  • 150g white sugar (the original recipe calls for 300g brown sugar which IMO is way too much)
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1-2 tbsp rice wine vinegar (the original recipe used lime juice for acidity instead)
  • vegetable oil for frying
  • 2 scallions, finely sliced
  • 1 cm of ginger, cut into matchsticks
  • pinch of saffron
  • 1 cup rice (I used basmati)
  • chili and coriander (optional garnish)

1. Pound the garlic and peppercorns in a mortar pestle until it's a paste.2. Fry this with a bit of oil in a large pot until fragrant.
3. Add the stock, wine, soy sauce, oyster sauce, cooking caramel, cinnamon and star anise to this large pot and bring to the boil. The major flaw with the original recipe that calls for 2L of chicken stock is that it was way too much liquid. I had to ladle out about 1L just to allow the pork to fit. I suggest you add everything but the stock first and then enough stock to cover the pork.4. Add the pork belly to the pot and reduce to a simmer. I placed a cup on the pork to weigh it down and keep it submerged under the liquid and popped the lid on. The original recipe suggests cooking for 1 hr but I let it slow cook for 2 hours.5. Remove the pork from the braising liquid and set aside. I cut it into the inch square portions straight away. I think if you pop the whole pork slab in the fridge until it's cold and firm and THEN cut it, the pieces have a nicer, more even edge. Because I cut mine whilst warm, the meat was all frayed and unattractive. Either way, cut and set aside.6. To make the sauce, get a new pot ready (I used a large saucepan) and cook the sugar on high until it caramelizes. Stir constantly to prevent burning. As soon as it is golden and caramel, reduce the heat and add ~ 1 cup of the braising liquid from before. Stir through and add the fish sauce and vinegar. Taste and adjust adding more/less of the braising liquid, fish sauce or vinegar as required.7. Once the sauce is good, add the pork pieces back into the sauce and stir to coat (don't stir vigorously because your pork might fall apart). Let it bubble on low heat there for another 15-20min to soak up the flavors and keep warm until you're reading to serve.
8. In that time, I made the rice. I have a poor history of success with rice cooked on the stove. With this, first you make a fragrant oil by putting a bit of oil in a small saucepan and frying the ginger and scallion pieces until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and let the oil cool a bit.9. Add the saffron and let it infuse into the oil.
10. Using ~ 2 tbsp of the oil in a saucepan, coat the rice until shiny. Add 1.5 cups of water and bring to the boil. Quickly reduce the heat to a low simmer, pop on the lid and let it absorb for 10-15min. This didn't go exactly to plan for me and I had to add a bit of water part way through but the end result was reasonable.
11. To serve, plate up the pork and garnish with sliced chili and coriander. Serve with the rice and sprinkle some of the crispy scallion and ginger.

The pork was good. When mum saw I had braised it whole, she said the flavor probably hadn't gone in. If that's the case cooking the pieces in the sauce really introduced some flavor. The caramel component of the sauce lends a lovely sticky sweetness and makes the dish very moreish. The pork was also tender without falling apart.

I actually skipped a major step that was in the original recipe. Well... not really. I attempted it. You're supposed to deep-fry the pork pieces before putting them into the sauce. I experimented with a few pieces and nearly lost my eye. I quickly abandoned the task but not before wasting some precious oil and creating a right mess of splatter in the kitchen.

Honestly, the pork was still good without the frying so why needlessly give yourself more artery clog?

I thought the rice was good but not worth the effort of not using your rice cooker :).


  1. oh my, I adore the look of that glistening caramelised pork! what a lovely looking dish :)

  2. Hi eye candy carousel...
    Thank you! It glistens because it's so fatty but we need a bit of fuel for winter :p

  3. Hi, i've recently been eyeing ur blog coz both of us seem to have tried similar recipes on masterchef such as this recipe and gary's pork ribs. I combined ur version and gary's pork ribs and they tasted very delicious.

    For this recipe, I also tried it (before you) and yeah i also found 2 litres was way too much. I used 1 litre of chicken stock. I also found the broth a bit salty so i added some rock sugar into it and it tasted a lot better. I also simmered for 2 hours and the pork was tender kinda falling apart. I had previously cut the pork into pieces before simmering which prob gave it made really tender. However, i did deep fry it like the recipe and it did have a nice crispy crust but it lost some of its tenderness. I think in the future i'll do it like ur and just stir it into the sauce.

    I admit 300g sugar was way too much so i used 200 grams and added more lime juice. The pork was delicious too. I just served with white rice.

    Do try his drunken chicken recipe. I added some of my comments on the official website cos i think the broth would be horrible without the 2 tsp extra salt (it was just too sweet). U can see me under the username 'lilian85'.

    Just wanted to say that i like some of ur recipes on ur blog. I prob might try ur coca cola pork ribs...was those better than gary's? Keep up the good work!

  4. Hi Lilian...

    I saw Alvin's drunken chicken recipe somewhere, possibly the new MC magazine. Was it good though? I love traditional drunken chicken.

    I've done cola ribs twice, if you do a search. Both times was good. The older post involved more work but they were delicious. The slow cooker recipe was nice too. I haven't tried Gary's recipe exactly so I can't compare but I'm sure he knows what he's doing.

  5. Yeah its good... i did alter some changes to the recipe. The broth was too sweet so i added about 1-2 tsp salt to it. u can read my comments there posted under lilian85. Do u think this caramelized pork belly would work for chicken legs? Definitely simmer it for 30 mins to 45 mins max i guess since chicken cooks really fast.

  6. Hi Lilian...
    Hmm I've never thought about doing it with chicken. It would probably work well with thighs but I'd cut back the cooking time too. And maybe less sweetness and more chili :D