Before I met Beijing, there was another affair I had a brief, bitter-ending engagement with and his name was I believe, Hong Kong. We spent an abusive 18 months together right after New York… ah New York. It was such a transcendent love, great love, Mr. BIG-GREAT that anyone else who followed was predetermined to never live up. Without the enlightenment of other perspectives, I couldn’t love a city with EVEN SMALLER living-square footage than New York… EVEN MORE CROWDED streets than ant-hills, EVEN UGLIER buildings than Taipei and many many EVEN-MORE-NESS to feel sorry for myself about. Like I said, I had no perspective. I had no idea that Hong Kong was already Aidan.
Now? Now that I’m involved with a city who’s unapologetically the equivalent of every other living assholes combined… does Hong Kong look more handsome or just that I’m well past my 30’s? I mean yes, competing for an inhumane amount of living space within the wet crumbles of an ant-hill is hard to get used to, but hey at least he washes himself, lines up for Starbucks and doesn’t pee into a bucket in the airport. Do I sound like I’m settling? And really, in retrospect, good times happened. Beneath all the violent disagreements and hurtful words, it did. Nice joints, friends, conversations and flowing sake (and have you seen his airport?)… and OH boy, did I not tell you about Nan Tei? Just down the hill of Happy Valley, short walk-away from where we lived, a short-lived ritual took life every weekend at a small, dark-wooden yakitori joint called Nan Tei.
It was our little bittersweet, our old wood leather chair… meats on a stick, conversations in a glass, the sticks piled up and the liquid went down… good memories. And if there’s a part of that I can extract and share with all of you, is this. A dearly missed marriage-made-in-heaven that is still relatively unfamiliar to most – pork + shiso leaves, simple and effective. You know shiso, the pretty leaf that decorates almost every plate of your sashimi but rarely bothered to be eaten. Because you didn’t know it tastes good. You didn’t know it’d be good to you. You thought you and pork needs nothing, but once you’ve tasted them together, you’ll have some perspectives, the good kind. And you’ll never turn back. Where as I… maybe I will never reunite with Mr. Big. But someday, Hong Kong? Maybe.
Servings: 5 ~ 10 skewers/yaki depending on thickness
When buying pork belly, pay attention to the balance between layers of fat and lean meats. Fat is important in this recipe so avoid parts that are overly lean with very little fat marblings in between, but you also wouldn’t want a giant fat-slab either. The size of the pork belly also matters. Make sure the length of the pork belly is long enough (at least 7″/18cm) that when cut into slices, it can cover the entire circumference of the roll. If not, the roll will “unravel” during cooking.
I can think of a bunch of other herbs that could potentially replace shiso, say sage or tarragon… things that goes with pork. But may I urge you NOT to rule out shiso because of unfamiliarity (which can be found in almost every Japanese supermarket), as although all the other herbs are great, pork and shiso are soul mates. Let them be.
Ingredients: inspired by Nan Tei yakitori in Hong Kong
- 500 grams of skinless pork belly
- 40 ~ 45 Japanese shiso leaves
- Fine sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Wrap the pork belly with plastic wrap and leave in the freezer to harden for at least 3 hours. Wash and clean the shiso leaves, and dry gently between two clean kitchen towels.
Lay an area approx 17″ x 17″/43 cm x 43 cm with plastic wrap. Remove the pork belly from the freezer and, with a VERY SHARP knife, slice the pork belly length-wise AS THINLY AS YOU HUMANLY CAN. Don’t even bother doing this with a room-temperature, or even cold pork belly. The entire piece of meat needs to be borderline FROZEN, because I’m talking about slices that’s no thicker than 1/16″ (2 mm). You may be able to find butchers who can do this for you with an electric slicer, or purchase pork belly from Korean grocery stores that is already sliced for hot pot/BBQ. If you do, just make sure the slices are of the right size, at least 7″/18cm long, and thickness. Lay the slices on top of the plastic wrap in 3 repeated rows, only overlapping slightly on the edges. Then arrange the shiso leaves (should be completely dry, not damp) on top, again, overlapping on the edges.
Start pulling up the plastic wrap from underneath and roll the entire thing like rolling a sushi, squeeze and tighten it up as TIGHTLY AS POSSIBLE as you go. Once you reach the end of it, wrap the entire roll in plastic wrap and twist one end of the it tightly, then tie up the plastic wrap in a knot. Then twist the other end, forcing the roll to be as compact as you can and tie another knot. Leave the roll in the freezer to harden for approx 2 hours. Meanwhile, soak the wooden skewer in water.
Preheat the broiler on high (or you can do this on an outdoor grill). Unwrap the roll from the plastic wrap, and cut it with a SERRATED KNIFE in zig-zag motion, into 1/4″ (0.5 cm) thick slices. To skewer them, make sure the point goes through near where the slices ends so it doesn’t unravel during cooking. Arrange 4 slices on a skewer and repeat until done. Season them liberally with fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and space them evenly on a baking rack with a sheet underneath to catch dripping. Set the rack on the upper level in the oven, only about 2″/4 cm underneath the broiler. Once the first side is nicely browned, flip them and brown the other side as well. It will only take approx 2 min on each side. If you oven tends to heat unevenly, you may need to switch positions of the skewers during cooking. Or a blow-torch comes very handy at finishing the job.
Sprinkle with more sea salt if needed and serve immediately.