Taiwan in a Pot
I mean, really. Taiwanese or not, if looking at this doesn’t induce some watering in the mouth, I’m afraid we don’t have anything in common. Just imagine that gelatinous pork belly coated in DARK, CARAMELLY AMBER SAUC… wait. It looks more like blurry, grainy, monotone photo that’s seen too much UV light?
Ooooh… haaa.. ha… you know… Instagram being SO happening and all… ha.. I thought it’d be cool to do a little “retro” look. Just kind of keeping up with the tech world… kind of thing… BUT HEY, not fond of distorted view of the world behind diffused lenses? OK. We’re back.
Rou-zao… rou-zao. What more can little me say about rou-zao?! This is probably another one of hundreds of recipes out there already. It may be the most quintessential, most widely used, the go-to flavor booster in Taiwanese food as a regional cuisine. Take a trip to Hsinchu in Taiwan, and this is BOUND TO end up somewhere on the table, for sure! It’s how we like our vegetables, blanched then smothered in this. It’s how we like our noodles, a dab in the soup to intensify the aroma. It’s how we like our rice, a spoonful enough to turn a plain bowl of grains into a meal, and bring any home-coming drifters into tears. In my opinion, this is the flavor of Taiwan. This is, if I may, Taiwan in a pot.
Nobody can talk about rou-zao without going into “you-cong” (prounounced as “yo tsong”). It translates literally into “oil shallot”, meaning fried shallots, laaaaaarrd fried to be exact. It is a staple of the Ke Jia culture, a driving force in the shaping of Taiwanese cuisine. I’m no historian but in my opinion, local Taiwanese flavors boils down to two major parties, the Japanese (the colonizer) and the Ke Jia (the colonized…). Majority of Taiwanese street foods, which is what it’s famed for, is a wondrous union between the two (bonito, miso AND fried shallots? Who would’ve thought…). Until the 50’s when Taiwan was turned into a giant refugee camp… OK, let’s not get political here.
Aaaaaanyhow. This thing is EVERYWHERE in Taiwan. In the rice, in the noodle, in the soup, in the dumplings, in the mochi, oooh yes, EVEN IN THE CAKE, YES! Crazy, I know!
But hoooold my horses! I’m talking about rou-zao today, and I can’t STRESS enough about the importance of the you-cong. As my dad would put it, the flavor of rou-zao is only as good as the quality of the you-cong. Yes. Yes, it is. Bad you-cong = flavorless rou-zao. So how can somebody get premium quality you-cong? I don’t know about the others, but I smuggle. They come bottled and still submerged in… laaarrd, or “drained” then bagged. I stuff both in my curiously stretchy socks and smuggle them across custom (just smile, eye-contact, then stroll through the gates as if there’s nothing to hide… except for a suitcase full of forbidden goods…). If bought fresh in the morning from local markets and vacuum packed, they will last a LONG time in the freezer.
OR, DIY. Ok, I have YET to try the DIY myself. As I previously mentioned, laaaaaaarrd is what’s called for. A lot of laaaaaaarrd. If someday I get desperate enough to do this, I’ll let Bloggy know…
So what other things are in there? Skin-on pork belly, good bottle of soy sauce and rice wine, some spices… and we are in business. Oh wait… yes… many would argue that a few hard-boiled eggs stewing alongside with the meat is a must component. But not me I’m afraid.
There is always something in everyone’s life that they ate so innocently growing up and NEVER for a second, doubted the legitimacy of its existence. Until of course they grew up, and realized that it has always been just their mothers’ desperate invention, whipped up in the name of cleaning the fridge… but mostly is about pure laziness.
A weird nostalgia that cannot be justified, nor overthrown by reasons. This one is mine. Gong-wan – pork meatballs. Mom threw these little suckers into a pot of rou-zao, God knows why, and now I can’t do rou-zao without it. Mom, you made me weird. Happy now?
- 1 kg 400 g of diced skin-on pork belly (trust me, have the boucher do the dicing)
- 6 fresh shallots
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1 tbsp of cane sugar
- 1 1/2 cup of you-cong (fried shallots)
- 1/2 cup of soy sauce (+1/2 cup for adjusting)
- 1 stick of cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp of five spice powder
- 1/4 cup of rice wine
- 3 cups of water
- 1 tsp of white pepper
- 5 ~ 6 gong-wan (Taiwanese pork meatballs)
A few things to mention:
* Pork belly – It has to be skin-on.
* Cane sugar – Or called “raw sugar”. Unrefined sugar that still retains a lot of molasses ie flavor. They usually come in slabs or cylinder shape.
* Soy sauce – Every bottle of soy sauce differs in tastes, salt and sugar content. That’s why there’s a 1/2 extra cup for adjusting.
* Rice wine – I ran out of rice wine so I used Jason’s sake…
* Gong wan – If not available, replace with SHELLED hard boiled eggs. Use a fork to poke little specks all over the egg whites so the flavors can seep in more easily.
Bring a BIG pot of water, with a chunk of ginger and some scallions, to boil. Blanch the pork belly for 2 minutes and rinse them clean under running water. Preheat the oven on 310°F/150ºC. Chop the fresh shallots and garlic, and saute them in a dutch oven until slightly browned (I use a dutch oven because I do rou-zao in the oven. Trust me. It’s so much easier without the stirring and sticking in a clay pot on the stove). Put all the pork belly in the pot along with 1 tbsp of cane sugar. Set the heat on medium high and stir occasionally. Let the pork belly fry in the fat that’s rendered out of itself. This is going to take approx 10 ~ 15 min. There should be a considerable amount of pork fat being rendered out, and the meat should take on a bit of caramelization.
Add the rice wine, 1/2 cup of soy sauce, cinnamon, five spice powder, and fry everything for another 8 ~ 10 min. There will be sticky brown bits forming in the bottom and on the side of the pot. This is what I want. A good layer of caramel. Now add the you-cong, fried shallots. All 1 1/2 cup of it. Stir roughly to combine, then add the water. DON’T LET THE YOU-CONG FRY IN THE POT for more than 10 seconds! They WILL BURN, and the whole pot will be a big BITTER mess! And that will have me break down into a full-blown panic attack!
Once the water is added, a thick layer of pork fat will float onto the surface. Skim it out. RELAX!! PORKERS!! There’s plenty where those came from! PLENTY MORE pork fat will be released when it’s cooking in the oven. Skimming this fat out in the beginning gives me a better assessment of the “water level”, the progress on the reduction of the liquid without a thick layer of deception on top. Adjust the saltiness with soy sauce, with this particular brand I used this time, I added 1/4 cup more. The pork balls I’m adding later on will also release some more saltiness.
Put the lid on and move the pot into the 310°F/150ºC oven, and bake for 1.5 ~ 2 hours. The liquid should become gelatinous, and meat should be meltingly soft. If the liquid has reduced too much (just compare it with the pictures), add a bit more water. Add the pork meatballs at this point, stir a bit to scrape in any caramel in the bottom and on the side of the pot. Return the pot to the oven, and bake for another 1 hour.
The most common way to eat this is spooning it over a bowl of hot rice. But since I was talking about Ke Jia cuisine. Let’s “Ke Jia” the shit out of it. Sticky rice balls. One of my fav… yes it says in the picture. It’s made of sticky rice and has a chewy texture. Usually eaten in dessert, but with savory rou-zao, it’s quirky and wonderful in my opinion.
- a small bowl of frozen sticky rice balls (they usually come frozen)
- 5 stalks of Asian chives, cut in segments
Bring a big pot of water to boil, then drop in the rice balls. Once the rice balls float to the top of the water, it’s done. Take them out with a slotted spoon, then cook the chives in the same water for 10 seconds. Place both in a bowl and add a ladle of rou-zao over the top, sprinkle with white pepper. Chew away.