'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Monday, 26 November 2012

Braised pork belly with dried bamboo shoots 筍乾燜豬肉

東坡居士 蘇軾 (1037-1101)
In this age of globalisation, raw ingredients are no longer tied to their terroir and you can easily get most ethnic ingredient in every major city of the world. That being said, certain ingredients are only appreciated by people of that particular region, and sometimes they perish so quickly that they're just not the same when transported to the other side of the world. Take bamboo shoots for example, they get more fibrous every day and has an increasing bitter taste as it grows. Even after digging, its freshness and crunchy texture diminish by the hour - at least that's what people who have access to freshly dug bamboo shoots claim. In fact, many Chinese gourmets regard freshly-dug bamboo shoots as one of the greatest culinary experiences one could have.

In the west, however, most people's conception of bamboo shoots is of the tasteless, pallid canned variety that does nothing but fill up the generic chop suey or whatever take-away stir-fry. In Asia, however, bamboo shoots have always been a culinary delicacy, especially in Chinese and Japanese cuisines. In Chinese culture, bamboos are also a symbol of unrelenting moral uprightness. The great Song dynasty poet, politician, calligrapher and gourmet Su Dongpo (蘇東坡) famously wrote that: 

 'I would rather eat a meal without meat than live in a place without bamboo.
Eating without meat makes you lose weight, but living without bamboo makes you lose refinement.'

Dongpo pork, popular version
It was also Su Dongpo who supposedly invented the celebrated Chinese dish Dongpo Pork which is usually interpreted as red-braised pork belly with Shaoxing rice wine. It happens to be one of the first dishes I learnt to cook, but the dish I'm writing about today is a lesser-known version of 'Dongpo Pork'. It combines the two elements that are so dear to Su Dongpo - bamboo and pork - in a dish. Bamboo shoots come in a great deal of varieties, and for this braise I'm using dried, fermented bamboo shoots which have a rather acidic taste and mouldy smell. For non-Chinese people it would be somewhat of an acquired taste, but like all good things it's addictive once you've got used to it. The soaking and parboiling get rid of most of the unpleasant flavours of the bamboo shoots and they blend beautifully with pork belly. If you can find dried bamboo shoots, I urge you to give them a try, and hope that you'll be convinced!

Braised pork belly with dried bamboo shoots 筍乾燜豬肉

2.5 kg well-marbled pork belly
180g dried bamboo shoots (筍乾)
4 cloves of garlic
5 slices of ginger
4 spring onions, chopped into a few sections
4 tbsp soybean paste (磨豉醬)
6 tbsp sugar, preferably brown
1 tbsp dark soya sauce
3 tbsp light soya sauce
3 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine

1. A day before making this dish, soak the dried bamboo shoots in plenty of water. Soak for at least a day, and refresh the water once halfway through.

2. Bring the pork belly in a large panful of water to the boil, and maintain on a medium-high heat for another 5 minutes or so, until you see scum rising to the surface. Drain in a colander and rinse the pork under the tap.

3. Cut the pork into thickish slices or cubes - I like them in thick slices, about 2cm.

4. Do the same for the dried bamboo shoots: bring them to the boil in a big pan, boil for a few more minutes, and drain under the tap. Following the directions of the fibres, shred the bamboo shoots into slivers with your hands.

5. Heat a braising pan until nice and hot. Maintain on medium-high heat, add a tablespoon of oil, and stir fry the garlic, spring onions and ginger in the pan until fragrant. 

6. Add the soybean paste and sugar and stir-fry till you smell the fragrance of the sauce and the sugar is melted.

7. Turn the heat to high, add the pork belly slices and stir through so that the surfaces are evenly coated with the sauce. Add the bamboo slivers.

8. Add water to barely cover the pork and bring to a boil on high heat. Add the rest of the seasoning, put the lid on and turn the heat down to a mere simmer.

9. Let simmer gently for at least 2 hours. I like the fatty bits really melting so I went for 3 1/2 hours this time.

10. You can eat as it is, but I'm fussy and want to get rid of the fat floating on top of the sauce. I take the pork pieces out and pour the sauce into a big bowl. Let the sauce cool, then put in the freezer so that the fat solidifies for easy removal.

Remember to cover the pork with a plastic wrap/cling film or it will dry out!

11. Pass the degreased braising liquid through a fine sieve if you like, and pour it back to the braising pan. Bring to a boil again and reduce until it has a thicker consistency. Taste for saltiness and sweetness - does it need more soya sauce or sugar? In any case, add another splash of wine for fragrance. Add the pork and bamboo pieces to the sauce and heat through again. Voilà!


  1. Thank you! My Aunt won't share our 'secret family recipe' so I am left with seeking the generous help from you and other generous international braised fatty pork and bamboo lovers! 谢谢!