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Belly belly good

December 28, 2007

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Chefs are going ga ga over pork belly.

Yes, this fatty, inexpensive cut is fast gaining favor and has risen on the trend-o-meter in the past couple of years. Here in Seattle, pork belly has top billing at fancy restaurants the likes of Tilth, Harvest Vine and Chez Shea.

But Asians who grew up on this humble cut have long enjoyed its succulent, full-fat flavor. Usually braised for hours on the stovetop — whether prepared the Chinese (red-cooked pork), Vietnamese (thit kho) or Indonesian (babi kecap) way — pork belly speaks of comfort food and brings us home to mama.

Pork belly, however, is not unknown to the American palate–it’s the part of the pig cured and smoked for bacon. The raw, unsmoked version comes with or without the skin and is commonly sold at Asian markets. With its increasing popularity, you should be able to special order pork belly from your local butcher, or try online sources like Flying Pigs Farm or Niman Ranch.

To make Asian braises, skin-on pork belly is essential to create the rich, velvety texture we’re used to, although other preparations may render the skin leathery and inedible. Not many pork cuts can withstand long braising, pork belly being one of the exceptions. In fact, braising is the typical way to cook pork belly, the slow, even heat transforming it into pure unctuous pleasure. Stop there or pan-fry or roast the belly to a crisp in the oven for a delicious crackle and crunch with each bite.

Ah … another reason why we love grandma and mum’s cooking!

Buying belly

Buy belly pieces between 2 and 3 inches thick and choose pieces that come from the front belly as opposed to the back belly for a good balance of meat and fat. How to tell? Look carefully at the layers and select a slab that is about 50/50 lean meat to fat.

Here is a Vietnamese braised pork belly (thit kho) dish adapted from a recipe Cathy Danh learned from her aunt.

Vietnamese Braised Pork Belly (Thit Kho)

Thit kho is one of those dishes rarely found at restaurants but eaten in all Vietnamese households, usually served with a canh (soup) dish for dinner. A meal during Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) would be incomplete without a kho (as these savory-sweet braised dishes based in a caramel sauce are called), and this pork and egg dish is a favorite among Southern Vietnamese. Coconut water (sometimes called juice) is not to be confused with coconut milk. It’s available in clear plastic bags in the frozen section, or canned in the drinks section.

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Boneless, skin-on pork belly (actually uncured/unsmoked bacon,) with the ideal ratio of lean meat to fat, or pork leg (rind-on) are traditional cuts for thit kho; but be warned, the resulting dish is not for the faint-hearted. For a lighter version, substitute the leaner Boston butt or use a mix of cuts. But try not to use all lean meat, the unctuous skin and fat is essential for the rich, velvety texture of this dish.

Time: 2 hrs
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon water
2 pounds pork belly (skin-on) or Boston butt (or 1 pound of each)
3 large garlic cloves, sliced
2 medium shallots, sliced (about 1/2 cup)
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 cups coconut water, strained of any meat
6 eggs (or 12 quail eggs), hard-boiled and shelled

Using a sharp knife, scrape off any stray hairs from the pork skin and cut meat into chunks 1-inch thick and 1-1/2 to 2-inches long.

In a 4-quart heavy bottom pan or Dutch oven, heat sugar and water over medium-high heat. Stir continuously until sugar melts. Continue cooking for another 10 to 12 minutes; syrup will form globules, turn a light golden hue and eventually caramelize into a thick amber liquid. You will smell a “burnt sugar” smell.

Add pork and raise heat to high. Stir for 1 minute to render some fat. Add garlic and shallots, and sauté 5 minutes until pork is browned but not cooked through. Lower heat to medium. Add fish sauce and pepper and sauté 1 minute to evenly coat meat.

Add coconut water. The liquid should barely cover pork. Bring to a boil. Add eggs, cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour (1-1/2 hours or longer if you want your meat melt-in-your-mouth tender), stirring occasionally to ensure eggs and meat are evenly coated with sauce. Pierce meat with the tip of a knife to test for tenderness. If at anytime the sauce drops to a level lower than one-third of pork, add water, 1/4 cup at a time.

Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Skim fat off surface with a ladle. (If you can wait, refrigerate overnight and allow fat to congeal on surface, making this task much easier.) Reheat over medium-low heat, taste sauce and adjust seasonings. Serve hot with steamed rice.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2014 4:24 pm

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  2. April 29, 2014 10:37 pm

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  4. September 19, 2013 3:32 am

    I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but your sites really nice, keep it up!
    I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back later on.
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  5. April 4, 2010 3:24 pm

    this dish is amazing!!. taste just like how my mum used to make. I’m so glad I came across your website.
    for a leaner version I removed some of the fat.

    keep up the good work. love the site.

    k.

  6. A_grateful_dude permalink
    October 1, 2009 1:02 pm

    I just had this for lunch today, in Toronto’s Chinatown, and I can’t stop thinking about it. The chunk of pork belly was sweet and sticky and savoury all at once, and the egg was a fascinating foil. I’ll be giving it a try at home (it’s cool here, so I’m already starting to crave long-cooked things) and I will most definitely be using the real-deal belly. If an artery clogs, I’ve got plenty more. :)

    Thank you for the recipe! I’ll be bookmarking this site.

  7. February 27, 2008 5:37 pm

    Thanks for your kind words, Clare!

  8. February 18, 2008 2:01 am

    Hi

    I LOVE YOUR SITE !!!!

    I was just browsing and came across your site, which I found really fabulous and made me hungry. I am involved with the grannies united website and one of the things we are trying to get going is our links with other active blogging grandmothers I therefore just wondered if you may wish to submit an article to the site. You will see that we already have some great recipes and it would be great if you wanted to submit a few of yours.

    If you don’t then no problem and keep up the good site.

    Best wishes
    Clare
    admin@granniesunited.com

    http://www.granniesunited.com/

  9. February 15, 2008 10:25 am

    Eve, that’s an interesting variation with the coconut milk instead of juice. Must have been pretty rich! Yeah, next time I’ll cook it longer so that it’ll develop a rich, dark hue, and be totally melt-in-your-mouth. Hard to be patient when you can’t wait to eat!

  10. February 15, 2008 10:04 am

    Hi Nina, thanks for dropping by! There are so many different versions of this dish across cultures, it’s pretty cool.

  11. Nina permalink
    February 13, 2008 1:45 pm

    This is one of my favorite dishes. I live in Houston where there are a lot of Vietnamese stalls that sell this. I always buy this, til one day I chanced upon your blog and the recipe.

    I made some last Sunday and it was great. I unabashedly used pork belly — thats what I use for my adobo too (im Filipina).

    Our family actually has an adobo recipe that uses fish sauce instead of soy sauce and thit kho reminds me of that dish.

    Thanks again for the recipe!

  12. Eve permalink
    February 7, 2008 7:30 am

    My parents & in-laws always poached a strip of pork belly with the chicken and it was not exactly a big hit through the years. We had to dip in either soy or oyster sauce to make it even remotely palatable.

    I made this last night (with adjustments) as part of our Chinese New Year dinner and it was fabulous! No eggs, and I used 100% coconut milk from a juice box instead of the juice as called for. My version was much darker/caramelized and melt-in-your-mouth after 2 hours.

  13. January 1, 2008 12:51 pm

    heh, heh, i think mine really are, marvin!

  14. December 29, 2007 8:16 pm

    Man, I could feel my arteries clogging just reading this;) Mmmm, but I can’t resist pork and pork fat, Thit Kho looks like an amazing dish.

Trackbacks

  1. Celebrating Lunar New Year with Foods From Different Cultures | The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook
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  3. How to: Buy Cheaper Cuts of Meat and Save Money on Groceries « The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook
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