Hakka style pork belly and taro (kau yook)

Kau yook freezes very well.

This makes a big batch but not to worry, kau yook freezes very well.

Winter has finally settled its haunches into Sydney. Now I have an excuse to wear my wide array of coats! Don’t judge, there’s something I find really charming about wearing a coat in cool weather.

Kau yook is a traditional Chinese Hakka dish where pork belly and taro are firmly layered upright like a pack of cards into a bowl. Covered with a fragrant sauce, it’s served upended so it retains the semi-spherical shape. It’s the kind of food you’d imagine a crinkly-eyed yet gruff Chinese grandparent would labour over for hours.

Be warned, if you’re afraid of fat, this is not the dish for you. Even a rather small bowl can serve a family of four with rice and simple green vegetables on the side. My desk neighbour at work who hails from China tells me that it’s often cooked at Chinese New Year. Dictated by the lunar calendar, the exact date jumps around from January to late February but wherever it falls, Chinese New Year signals the end of winter in China. In fact, many people refer to the start of the Lunar New Year as the Spring Festival.

Shallots and garlic sauteed on medium heat until softened.

Shallots and garlic sauteed on medium heat until softened.

Sauce is ready to be spooned over the pork and taro.

Sauce is ready to be spooned over the pork and taro.

I cooked this version on the weekend with my mother who grew up in East Malaysia which has a high Chinese Hakka population. When she was young, the local Hakka would celebrate events with a meal cooked by Hakka specialist caterers that travelled to your home to prepare a feast. The recipe was sourced from her childhood friend whose father was one of these said caterers. My mum tells me that there are three vital ingredients to Hakka style kau yook: five spice powder, Chinese rose wine (Mei kuei lu chiew) and red fermented beancurd. All of which makes for one intense tasting dish. Dried, salted mustard greens (mui choy) turns up in another common version of kau yook that is cooked by people of other Chinese origins, including the Cantonese. If you’re keen on that style, make sure that you don’t use the the wet brined mustard greens as that is a completely different style of preserved product.

Spend a little more money and don't buy the cheapest rose wine around. You get what you pay for and you want the fragrant stuff.

Spend a little more money and don’t buy the cheapest Chinese rose wine. You get what you pay for and you want the fragrant variety.

The process takes hours from start to finish, so you might as well make a lot of kau yook while you’re at it. The good news is that it freezes well so you can make a batch and save it for those cold winter nights when you feel like eating the equivalent of a Chinese family group hug. If Chinese families participated in group hugs, that is.

Do you know something else that is great about wearing a coat? It helps hiding the insidious winter layers that mysteriously creep on as the months go by. Whether kau yook is to blame or not depends in the end on how greedy you are.

Pork and taro, layered in a bowl. Remember to place the pork slices with the skin side down.

Pork and taro, layered in a bowl. Remember to place the pork slices with the skin side down.

Hakka style pork belly and taro (kau yook)

Start cooking: Four hours before eating.
Feeds: This makes four medium sized Chinese bowls. Each bowl should serve four people with rice and vegetables on the side.

Ingredients:

  • 1 kg x pork belly, skin intact
  • 1 kg x taro
  • 6 x Asian purple shallots
  • 1 x garlic bulb
  • 1/2 teaspoon x five spice powder
  • 2 cubes x red preserved beancurd
  • 100 grams x rock sugar
  • 2 tablespoons x light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon x salt
  • 2 tablespoons x Chinese rose liquor (Mei kuei lu chiew)
  • 1 tablespoon x sesame oil (optional)
  • Vegetable oil for shallow frying.

Method:

  1. Peel the taro. Some people find that raw taro to be a skin irritant so if you’re not sure, have some thin gloves nearby just in case. Using a heavy knife/cleaver, cut the taro into 5mm – 7mm thick slices.
  2. Heat up two litres of water in a medium pot until boiling. Blanch the pork belly for five minutes. Drain the meat and then using a metal skewer, puncture the skin with holes.
  3. Marinate the pork belly in two tablespoons of dark soy sauce for 30 minutes. This is just to add some colour.
  4. Heat up some neutral vegetable oil in a pot or wok. There should be at least an inch of oil in the pot/wok. When smoking, lightly fry the taro slices in batches until it gains a little colour and seals the pieces. It should take only a minute for each batch. Drain the taro slices on a plate lined with paper towels.
  5. When the oil is smoking again, gently lower the pork belly into the oil and let it brown for a minute on each side.
  6. Submerge the pork pieces in cold water for two hours. This is so the pork skin softens. Although you’re aiming to get some blistering on the skin, the pork belly in kau yook is meant to be melting and unctuous, not crisp and dry.
  7. In the meantime, we’ll prep the ingredients for the sauce. Soak the dried mandarin peel in water until softened. It should take less than an hour. Finely mince the softened peel and set aside.
  8. Finely mince the garlic and Asian shallots.
  9. Heat up two tablespoons of vegetable oil in a frying pan or wok over medium heat. Add the garlic and shallots and stir for two minutes until softened but not brown. Don’t let the garlic burn and become bitter.
  10. Add the cubes of preserved red beancurd paste and work it into a paste, mixing it with the softened garlic and shallots. Add in 400mls of cold water and stir until it becomes a sauce.
  11. Stir in the five spice powder, mandarin peel, sesame oil (optional but nice), rose wine, two tablespoons of light soy sauce, one tablespoon of salt and rock sugar. Gently simmer the sauce until the sugar dissolves and is incorporated into the sauce. This should take at least five minutes.
  12. Taste the sauce for seasoning and adjust the salt and sugar if needed. Remember that it needs to season all that pork and taro so don’t be shy. The sauce should end up intensely savoury, yet also mildly sweet. The pork belly was soaked in water so any seasoning from the dark soy sauce would have washed away.
  13. Now back to the meat! Take the pork belly out of the water and carefully cut into 8mm thick slices.
  14. Layer the pork belly and taro into medium sized Chinese bowls, keeping the skin side down. It’ll be served up-ended so it’s more attractive. Pack it firmly but leave a little bit of wiggle room in each bowl.
  15. Evenly divide the sauce over each bowl, making sure that some garlic and shallot is allocated for each one. As it later steams, the flavouring from sauce will seep through the layers.
  16. Steam the bowls of kau yook. If you intend to eat it straight away, cook for 90 minutes. If you are cooking it ahead of time, steam for 75 minutes as you’ll heat it up before eating and you don’t want to turn the taro to complete mush.
  17. Serve with plenty of steamed rice and some simple Asian greens.
Asian purple shallots, garlic and dried mandarin peel.

Asian purple shallots, garlic and dried mandarin peel.

Be generous with the sauce.

Be generous with the sauce.

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