This was going to be a short, straightforward post about the red braised pork belly that we had in our DIY bánh mì. How we stuffed the pork belly, and Vietnamese luncheon meat (but of course) into baguettes (richly slathered with pork liver pâté and home made mayonnaise), added carrot and daikon pickles, cucumbers, sprigs of coriander and shallots, topped with dipping sauce, and munched our way to bánh mì bliss. Cue photo of pork belly on Asian-esque melamine plate. Usual food blogger stuff.
Then, I read the recipe again, and started wondering.** (If you want to skip to the recipe, it’s at the end of the post.)
** A wandering mind – this is a sign that I have been away from university for too long. My mind didn’t wander much when I was doing a part time Masters while working full time, it was too busy figuring out how little research I could get away with for that 10,000 word essay.
I made red braised pork belly using a recipe from Luke Nuyen’s book, Indochine. This book documents Luke’s discovery of the French culinary heritage in Vietnam, and indeed in his own family. It is a beautiful book, and the cross-pollination of French and Vietnamese food cultures is a fascinating topic (as a book about food, it only touches lightly on the political/historical aspects). A good review of the book can be found here, by the Food Sage.
For many recipes, Luke gives a blurb about how its ingredients, or technique, or some other aspect of the dish, shows the influence of French cuisine.
Then I came to the recipe for red braised pork belly.
It was in the section about Hanoi, and how (French) charcuterie has become part of everyday eating. The recipe accompanied a gorgeous story about Mrs Chan’s 150 year old charcuterie store, and sits between a recipe for pork liver pate and pork terrine. The blurb says “Local Hanoians line up for hours for Mrs Chan’s red braised pork belly, which they take home and stuff into freshly baked crisp baguettes along with some pate and mayonnaise.”
But, the more I looked at the recipe, the more I began to wonder where the ‘French’ element or influence was – other than the fact that it was sold in a charcuterie store and eaten with baguettes. Rather, it looked surprisingly similar to some variations on ‘red cooked’ pork that are a common sight in many parts of China, from the north, to Shanghai, to the south east.
A quick search on the internet yielded no answer. Sure, there were lots of recipes for crispy skinned pork belly, many eaten in baguettes. There were also lots of recipes for the varieties of red cooked pork, notably Chairman Mao’s favourite. But I didn’t find an explanation of when red braised pork came into Vietnamese cuisine and whether it shows Chinese influence or French.
So, I did a comparison with other red cooked pork recipes I could find.
Vietnamese red braised pork: Luke’s recipe uses Chinese red food colouring (aha!), garlic, soy sauce, five spice powder, salt and young coconut water. The dry ingredients are mixed with food colouring, rubbed into the pork, marinaded and then cooked in coconut water until the pork turns dark-reddish-brown, and meltingly tender. Kinda similar to another recipe for crispy skinned pork belly featured in Luke’s earlier book, Songs of Sapa.
Chinese red cooked pork: this northern Chinese recipe for red cooked pork, and this Shanghai version, both use shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine) which is not found in Luke’s recipe. But, some of the seasoning – cassia bark, star anise, light soy sauce – are similar to the five spice powder and soy combination Luke uses.
While we’re here: Luke Nguyen presented a Chinese recipe for lucky red braised pork belly on his most recent show about the food in the Greater Mekong region (including China).
Now we’re wandering: Wikipedia was not very helpful, though it described the two main types of red cooking, and noted that five spice powder is sometimes used. (On a side note, I was glad to see the article described non-meat ingredients that are commonly used in ‘red cooking’, such as hard boiled eggs – I remember ‘marinaded’ hard boiled eggs from my childhood, how the egg white turns a medium brown on the outside, fading to the lightest tint near the egg yolk, and after marinating becomes a little firmer and chewy, with that savoury-sweet soy sauce-laden taste.)
After this un-academic comparison, the technique that set Luke Nguyen’s recipe apart from other red cooked pork recipes seemed to be tying the pork belly into a roll before it is cooked – turning pork belly into a shape convenient for slicing and stuffing into a baguette. All other recipes call for the pork belly to be sliced into chunks (eaten with rice) or thick slices (stuffed in steamed buns, Momofuku-style). Is the ‘roll’ shape evidence of ‘French’ influence?
If only Luke was here to explain. Preferably over a red braised pork belly bánh mì.
Red braised pork belly
(from Luke Nguyen’s Indochine)
Serves: 4-6 as part of a shared meal
1kg boneless pork belly (I got two pieces of pork belly from a Chinese butcher)
1/2 tsp Chinese red food colouring (I skipped this)
4 garlic cloves, freshly chopped
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp five spice (powder)
1 tbsp salt
1 litre (4 cups) young coconut water (I could only find coconut water that had a tiny bit of added sugar, so added a tsp extra soy sauce to compensate)
1. Place the pork belly in a dish. In a small bowl, mix the red food colour with 1 tbsp cold water, stirring to dissolve. Brush the mixture all over the pork until well coloured. (You can skip this step if not using food colouring.)
2. Combine the garlic, soy sauce, five spice powder and salt. Massage this mixture into the pork, then cover and place the pork in the fridge to marinate for 1 hour.
3. Bring the coconut water to boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Place the pork flat on a chopping board, skin side down, and roll up tightly from the narrow end, from the bottom up. Tie the pork with kitchen string at 2cm intervals, then place the pork into the boiling coconut water. (My pieces of pork belly was smaller, so I just rolled it up with the skin facing outwards, and tied the roll with kitchen string into smaller rolls.)
4. Cover the pan, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1 1/2 hours, or until tender, turning the pork regularly during the cooking time.
5. Once cooked, allow the pork to cool in the liquid before slicing the amount you require.
Serving: with rice, vermicelli noodles, or in Vietnamese baguettes. This will keep for up to 4 days in the fridge.