I keep hearing of the famous, almost fabled Taiwanese Pork Stew. When I asked one of my hosts about this he replied, “I make”. What does that mean? As translation occurred, I realized that he was going to make a recipe handed down from his ancestors.
My visit happened to coincide with “Sweeping of the Tomb” or “Qingming” festival. This is a national holiday in Taiwan, where people honor their ancestors. Most people make a special trip out to their ancestor’s tomb and clean it. At their homes, they prepare special meals and offer prayers. My host was going to honor his ancestors by preparing a pork stew that his great great grand father liked.
Go check out a full set of 48 images of this market on my Flickr.
I was eager to see the whole process. So we got up at the crack of dawn to make a trip to Shi Jia Wang Early Morning Market. This market starts very, very early in the morning when it is still dark. The vendors are small farmers from all over Taiwan who bring their unique produce to sell. Like most markets, not all vendors are farmers. Some vendors source from farmers and some are farmers themselves.
The main ingredient, obviously, is pork. Pork is sold in most meat markets around Taiwan. But we were after the Black Haired Pig. The Black Haired Pig or Berkshire Pig (England) or Kurobuta Pig (Japan) is known for it’s fatty and succulent meat. There is the story of music and pep talks in pig breeding. My host was very particular about his vendor. He was confident that this vendor had the best cut of pork in all of Taichung. Walking around the market and looking at the meat and lines of people at the stands confirmed his claim.
He walked up to the vendor and they spoke. Then the vendor reached under the counter covered with pork and pulled out a chuck of meat. It was a FIVE LAYER pork belly! Holy piglets! I have seen three layers of porkiness, but five, never in my lifetime. They smiled at each other and we walked away. He then went over to the leeks stand. They had a conversation. We waited while the vendor went diving under another counter. He came back out with a couple bunches of leeks. My host was satisfied. We circled back and picked up the huge back of Five Layer Pork Belly!
The first thing I was asked to do was smell the raw pork meat. What do you know? No SMELL! Really? How? I was told that the pork is castrated at piglet and hence no smell. Why don’t we castrate American pigs? I have had this experience from buying pork at my local grocery stores, Walmart and Public versus my local Asian grocery store 1st Oriental Super Market. Now I know. I am sure there are other elements in play here.
While this is an ancient family recipe handed down from generations to generations, I was fortunate to stand over my host’s shoulder. In honor of his ancestors, I will not share the entire recipe. However, I can share the main ingredients and cooking methods. The pork is generously cubed and seared, in a wok, with whole cloves of garlic and star anise. It is then placed in layers in a deep pot with leeks. A mixture of soy sauce and water is added. The wok is deglazed with Shaohsing, Taiwan’s famous wine and poured over the meat. The whole pot is then covered with pork skin. This is allowed to simmer for two hours, then eaten the next day.
The flavors and textures developed from this dish is an outer body experience. Never have I experienced such intensity and tenderness without the porky smell. All of the layers of fat simply melts into heaps of happiness. The meat is eaten with rice and pickled vegetable. Or alone, as I did.
I am forever thankful to my host and his ancestors to share such a family heirloom. I am especially honored to be able to watch and learn. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that revered sages were in the presence.