As a kid, I’ve always been in to intense flavors. One of the many great things about growing up in a first generation family in Southern California is the access to different flavors, cuisines, and ingredients. When visiting Westminster, I would love the tart fishy flavors of Nuoc Cham, or when eating dim sum in Roland Heights, the bitter, earthy quality of gizzards, liver, and kidney would stick in my mind for the rest of the day. So, naturally when I first tasted Taiwanese Soy Paste, I would be drawn to the sweet and salty quality of the sauce.
At home, there was one dish that we would use this sauce for dipping. It was a soup that was made with the neck bones of pork and with the addition of bitter melon, daikon, or winter melon. It was an easy soup to prepare and the flavor was clean and light and warmed the body. The broth is magical because it is only a few ingredients and takes an hour to cook, but tastes like a complex broth that’s been boiling for a whole day. The best part of the soup is always the pork bones. It takes a little effort, but the neck bones have some meat that has to be dug out. Once you get to it, it’s tender and earthy flavor will make it all worth the work.
I, of course, would always fish for the largest piece at the beginning of the meal so no one claim rights to it. I’d set it aside in my soup bowl while I continued to eat my rice, other braised meats, fish, vegetables; whatever was required for my parents to be satisfied that I had eaten a balanced meal. Then, when it was time to enjoy the pork, I would spoon some soup over the meat to reheat it and then go grab a small dish of soy paste.
My mom would always watch how much I poured into my dipping dish, because I always seemed to “accidentally” pour twice the amount that a person should consume. Once I got it back to the table, with sheer excitement, I would start picking pieces of pork off the neck bones and cover them in this sweet salty sauce. These bones have some nooks and crannies to them, but I discovered what the chimps had known for so long; that a long stick is a great tool. I took my one chopstick and began picking at the crevices to get out all the tender meat. Sometimes, if I planned it right, I would run out of the sauce and have to go back for seconds. This is how I was able to cheat my Mom’s system.
I remember one time, when I was young; I was so excited to be able to get more of the soy paste that I wasn’t really in the right state of mind. It’s like when I was scooping mayonnaise into my mouth or drinking coleslaw juice. I had a moment of weakness. I noticed that some of the paste was dribbling down the side, I could have just wiped it with a napkin, but that would be wasteful. What if I use a piece of my pork? Wait, it’s too far. I know! I’ll lick it. So I slowly moved the bottle to my mouth, and with a quick lick, it was clean. (I realize that the last two options make me sound unsanitary. I was)
“Did you just put your mouth to the bottle?” Damn, my brother caught me.
“No. That’s gross!” I stomped back to the dinner table, upset that my brother thought I would do something so disrespectful and offensive. But, I did. And it was worth it. I got more of the soy paste.
Later that night, Mom threw away the bottle of soy paste.
Taiwanese “Soy Paste” or “Sweet Soy Sauce” is a thicker more viscous soy sauce that contains sugar, rice and potato starch in addition to the soy sauce. Because it’s a blend, it has much less sodium than regular soy sauce, but not that much more. The brand that I like to use is “Kimlan”. You can commonly use it in stir fries, but when going through the streets of Taiwan, you will more likely see it mixed with cilantro and crushed peanuts and used as a dipping sauce for various dishes. It’s really good, in that combination, over Taiwanese Tamales.
Some notes on the soup. In order to get a really clear broth, my mom would do a quick initial boil of the bones to release all the protein and scum and then re-boil it with the vegetables. If you don’t mind swampy broth, you can skip that step.
2 lb pork neck bones
1 large daikon, peeled and sliced into 1 inch pieces
4 cups of water
salt to taste
for clear broth (skip the next two steps if you don’t mind a clear broth)
rinse bones and place in a large pot and cover with cold water and turn on high heat
drain water once it has come to a boil
add all 4 cups of water, until covering the bones, in a large pot and boil on high heat
simmer the stock for 45 minutes after the water comes to a boil
add the daikon and simmer until fork tender, about 15 minutes
season the broth with salt and thrown in some cilantro for the last five minutes of cooking.