Pork belly hotpot

Pork belly hotpot

My friends and I have a semi-regular thing we like to do called 'corkasian'. The premise is simple: go to one of the many bustling restaurants in Chinatown (Cafe Kowloon, BBQ City, and East Taste usually) and take advantage of their tasty asian food and criminally cheap corkage ($1.50 per person! What?!).

At our first visit to BBQ City we ordered a pork belly hotpot dish that at the time was, quite simply, amazing. The pork was so tender you could cut through it with chopsticks, and the sauce was aromatic and perfectly seasoned. A few weeks later we revisited BBQ City and its famed hotpot, but it wasn't the same. It could have been the fact that I was taking an alcohol-free day, but even my more jovial tablemates agreed. Still, the seed had been planted and I have made it a personal mission to make my own delicious pork belly hotpot.

This recipe is adapted from Simon Bryant's red-cooked camel recipe. It's as simple as anything, too. Just put all your ingredients into a pot, then say goodbye to them for 6 hours. Unfortunately it's quite hard to photograph well, but do take my word that it tastes much better than it looks.

Pork belly hotpot, before cooking

See you in 6 hours!

Pork belly hotpot

  • 800g pork belly, in thick slices
  • 3 cups boiling water
  • 1/2 cup dark soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup shaohsing wine
  • 1 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
  • 1/2 a medium onion, diced
  • 30g sliced dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 3-4 cm piece of ginger, sliced thickly (skin on is fine)
  • 2 star anise
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 pieces of dried mandarin peel

1. Preheat an oven to 150ºC/300ºF. Select a heavy, oven-safe casserole dish that will fit the pork belly snugly. Place all of the ingredients except the pork belly inside, and stir to dissolve the sugar.
2. Submerge the pork belly in the liquid and cook, covered, in the oven for 5-6 hours.

The first time I made this I ate it as is, straight out of the oven. However pork belly being what it is, a lot of fat melts into the sauce. Because the pork skin and connective tissue also produce a lot of gelatin, my usual technique of refrigerating and pouring the liquid through a strainer doesn't work here (because the sauce sets as well as the fat). Instead while the sauce was warm I strained once to get hold back the solids, then used Jen's handy method. At this stage you can also pick out the whole spices so no one gets an unpleasant surprise.

So did I do it, did I recreate that first glorious meal? I'm getting there. I reduced the amount of dark soy from the original recipe by a third, but I could still afford to knock that down just a little more, adding a bit of stock to mellow things out. Also, while the star anise is absolutely crucial, two might be too much. However those are minor tweaks in search of perfection — even short of perfection this is a damn fine way to treat a belly of pork.

Beef & green bean rice noodles, dry-style

Beef & green bean noodles

I simply can't resist ordering dry-style rice noodles when I'm in a Chinese restaurant. Pork, beef, duck, seafood, vegetables, they're all delicious. There's something about the perfect texture of fresh rice noodles that makes them so moorish, and as it turns out, they're a pleasure to cook as well.

If you've never cooked with fresh rice noodles before, I strongly recommend trying it. They're cheap, versatile, almost impossible to screw up, and it can't just be me that finds separating them to be a strangely relaxing experience. They're made by pulverising soaked uncooked rice into a paste, then spreading that out to a thin layer and steaming it. A layer of oil followed by a second layer of rice batter is poured on top, and the process repeated until you have a stack of steamed rice noodle sheets, ready to be cut into thinner strips. You could do this yourself if you were desperate, but just about everyone who isn't a Chinese farmer's wife buys them, and you don't want to be different, do you?

Fresh rice noodles

The other great thing about this recipe is flank steak. I'm shocked by what supermarkets pass off as "stir-fry beef" — If you're lucky it's tender-but-flavourless loin, but more often than not it's some unspecified cut that is sliced too thickly to become tender when cooked quickly. Flank steak, on the other hand, is perfect. It's a long, relatively flat muscle from towards the (wait for it) flank of the animal, with very a very obvious grain of muscle fibres that travel along the length of the muscle. While flank can be tough if not handled properly, very thin slices cut against the grain and stir-fried briefly are extremely tender. I took a photo of some raw flank steak to demonstrate how to cut it, but unfortunately it looked too much like an alien penis to post. Just remember, against the grain.

Beef & green bean rice noodles, dry-style

Ingredients (makes about 2 main serves):

  • 250 g flat rice noodles, fresh
  • 100g flank steak, sliced thinly against the grain
  • Small handful of green beans, parboiled until almost done
  • 1 egg, whisked together lightly with 1 tbsp water
  • Small handful of bean sprouts
  • 4 garlic chives, chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 tsp finely grated ginger1
  • 1 clove garlic, finely grated
  • 1/2 tsp chinese 5-spice powder
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper, ground
  • 1.5 tbsp dark soy sauce
  • 1.5 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 2 tsp hoisin sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • Peanut oil for cooking

1. In a small bowl, make the sauce by combining the dark soy, light soy, hoisin sauce, and sesame oil. In another bowl, combine the beef and beans with the garlic, ginger, chinese 5-spice powder, and white pepper. Pour over a small amount of the sauce (about 1 tbsp) and toss to coat evenly. Set aside.
2. Heat 1 tbsp of peanut oil in a medium-hot wok and add the whisked egg. Cook until almost set on top, then remove to a bowl. Meanwhile, separate the rice noodles.
3. Heat the wok to the highest heat, then add 1 tbsp oil and the marinated beef and beans. Stir-fry for 1 minute, then add the noodles and about 3/4 of the remaining sauce. Toss to coat the noodles evenly with the sauce, frying for about 2-3 minutes. Taste and add more sauce if necessary.
4. Remove from the heat, and toss in the bean sprouts, garlic chives, and reserved wok omelette which should break up as you toss it with the noodles.

(1) Alternatively you can mince a 1/2 inch piece of ginger — I just find that grating ginger is a quick and easy way to get crushed ginger. Make sure you grate it over whenever you plan to add it, to catch any juice.

Yangzhou fried rice: a love story

Yangzhou fried rice

I used to grudgingly tolerate my old electric stove. It was my first stove, a fact that won it countless free passes. I could be cold and moody, but the two of us knew each other. It wouldn't short circuit or flame up if I let a pot bubble over, and I learned to keep two hotplates on at different temperatures when I needed to overcome its slow responsiveness. Sometimes it was hard work, but that's what they say about love — there's no denying it, that stove and I made some beautiful food together.

Fried rice changed things. Back then I truly believed that while an electric stove made a lot of things harder, it didn't make anything impossible. I attempted fried rice on it (like most of my workarounds, it involved cast iron) and while the results were good, it wasn't right. Maybe if I'd tried harder I could have made restaurant-quality fried rice, but then the next week it would be the same thing all over again with crispy-skinned salmon. Deep down I knew the fried rice was just a symptom — I had to face the difficult realisation that my stove was holding me back, that it was me making all the compromises. When I came home from a busy day hungry for a quick, smoky stir fry it was me spending extra time enacting all of these elaborate workarounds. Me! And the stove had been at home doing nothing all day!.

A week after I disconnected the electric stove, I already had a shiny new stainless steel gas range. Call it a rebound, but it's been 8 months and I've never been happier. I still remember the first night I got the gas hooked up and made a huge bowl of fried rice. It was delicious. The gas stove opened a lot of doors, but for me conquering fried rice was something special, something necessary. I've made it a lot since then, and it only gets better. Please, gentle reader, allow me to share with you these things I have learned.

Gateway pork: Chinese pulled pork belly

Pulled pork belly fried rice

I'd never get a job in a Chinese restaurant. Sure, I think I'd be a skilled and dedicated employee. I'd work well in a team but have the initiative to work independently, I'd be goal-oriented, and many other job interview clichés would also apply to me. But my biggest weakness wouldn't be perfectionism. No, it would be licking every surface that has come into contact with char siu pork. Fingers, knives, it doesn't matter. That sticky glaze is a drug.

There are plenty of good recipes around for char siu pork, most of them calling for pork shoulder, loin, or even neck. While all I had was pork belly which requires long, slow cooking, I wasn't about to go without the sweet, aromatic flavour of char siu. So like a crack pipe fashioned out of a used spark plug, I improvised this recipe for chinese pulled pork belly. You could eat this simply with rice, stuffed inside a pork bun, or as I had it above in fried rice.

Chinese pulled pork belly


  • 1/3 cup of chopped spring onion
  • 1/4 cup of hoisin sauce
  • 1 tbsp of shaoxing cooking wine
  • 2 tbsp of honey
  • 1.5 tsp of chinese 5 spice powder
  • 2 tsp of rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp of peanut oil
  • 2 tbsp of water
  • 800 gram piece of pork belly, skin removed

1. To make the marinade stir together all of the ingredients except the pork belly.
2. Pierce the pork belly all over with a metal skewer or the end of a sharp knife. Rub the marinade over the pork and leave in the fridge overnight.
3. Preheat the oven to 140ºC/285ºF. Cook the pork belly with all of its marinade, covered, for 3-4 hours or until completely tender. If the marinade pooling in the baking dish looks like it's over-reduced and is going to burn, add a few more tablespoons of water.
4. Remove from the oven, and pull the meat apart in the baking dish with two forks. Stir to coat the meat in cooked marinade and return to the oven. Uncover, turn the heat up to 200ºC/395ºF and cook for around 15 minutes to start deeply caramelising the edges (watch it doesn't burn).