There are certain ingredients that I will always equate to Taiwanese food. They are ingredients that make up dishes that bring me back to my childhood and remind me of a time when I was innocent, eager, and always ready for culinary adventures. And that’s one of the main reasons that i started this blog, to share with you the moments when I fell in love with certain dishes. These ingredients are sticky rice, preserved vegetables, the Taiwanese braising combination, and pork belly (or any gelatinous dish). The moment any of these things touch my mouth or the smell of them cooking fills the air, I’m reminded of when I was younger when I was full of energy, excitement, and culinary adventure.
I had to get some help when purchasing the ingredients for this dish though. Also, it’s gone through a few different attempts before I finally figured out the right recipe for it. The key item in this dish is not the pork belly. Although, the pork belly is the star in my books with it’s beautiful unctuous texture and rich flavor. Before I salivate all over my keyboard, let’s get back to the point: the key ingredient to this dish is Mei Gan Cai. It is preserved mustard greens that are made by drying, salting, squeezing, steaming, and fermenting the greens and stalks. The long process gives the pickled vegetables a delicious earthy flavor with a subtle sweetness to round out the salty flavor that comes from it. You can usually find this at larger Chinese supermarkets. But make sure you bring a picture of the product or the characters when you go shopping. It will help, I promise.
Here are the things I learned while working on this dish:
1) bring a friend who can read Chinese to the market with you. I thought I would be able to go by sight when picking out the vegetables for this dish, but I’ve actually never bought it in it’s raw form before. Luckily, I had a friend with me who reads Chinese so she was able to pick it out for me.
2) wash the vegetables and soak them multiple times before you cook it. The first time I cooked this dish, I treated the pickled vegetables like the dried turnips or zha cai and just washed it once. That with the soy sauce in the liquid made it unbearably salty. The second time I made it, I washed the vegetables four or five times and then soaked it in hot water for around 45 minutes to release the salt from the vegetables. With a final rinse before cooking, you will finally be set to cook the dish.
3) cut the pork belly into 1 inch cubes if you are in a hurry. And when I mean hurry, I mean like you need to have dinner ready in 3 or 4 hours from start of braise time as opposed to 6 to 8 hours for a whole piece of bork belly.
4) don’t be afraid of sugar in this dish. If you think about it, your putting in soy sauce, preserved vegetables, and rice wine which all contain a high amount of salt. Of course you are going to need a lot of sugar to help balance that out.
2 lb pork belly, sliced in 1 in chunks if you want
1 tsp oil, canola, vegetable, or peanut
2 c mei gan cai, rinsed, soaked, and chopped
5 slice of ginger
2 medium scallion, minced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 c soy sauce
3/4 c sugar
1/2 c rice wine
1 c water
sear pork belly in a large pot or dutch oven on high with oil
add preserved vegetable, ginger, scallion, and garlic and stir until fragrant
pour the rest of the ingredients in the pot and stir
braise on low heat until pork belly is completely tender, about 4 hours