Star anise or aniseed, adds an unmistakable flavor to this popular Chinese pork dish
One rainy Seattle morning, I had the pleasure of meeting up with not one, but two, grandmas! My friend Byron Au Yong arranged for me to meet his grandma, Ty Hee Tak, and his aunt Merla who is married to his first uncle Te See.
Merla, who lives in New Hampshire, was in town to celebrate Hee Tak’s “100th” birthday on October 1, 2007. I was told that Hee Tak was born in Anhai, Fujian province, China, in 1909. So I was more than a little confused since according to my calculations and the Gregorian calendar (i.e. the Western calendar), she was only 98 years old. Merla kindly explained. “She turned 99 by the Chinese calendar but you don’t want to celebrate 99 years (bad luck?) so you celebrate 100.” Ah, I get it … I think.
Nevertheless, it was a momentous occasion and the festivities were attended by Hee Tak’s three sons, three daughters, 22 grandkids and 17-1/2 great grandkids (one was on the way) who came from near and far.
The matriarch of the Au Yong family has lived a long and somewhat tumultuous life. Hee Tak migrated to the Visaya region in Southern Philippines when she was young (she can’t remember when) where she eventually became a Chinese teacher. Her late husband, Auyong Shu, was the principal of a Chinese school. When the Japanese occupied the Philippines during World War II, they managed to avoid persecution (the Japanese despised both the Chinese and the educated class) by escaping to the mountains. When the war was over, they decided not to teach anymore (as it still is now, teaching was a low paid and underappreciated profession) and started a business selling fabrics instead. In 1981, Hee Tak moved to the U.S. to join her children.
Merla’s story starts in the Philippines. She was born in the Philippines in 1934 to Chinese parents who migrated from Fujian in the 1920s. On September 21, 1972, then President Marcos declared martial law over the entire country. With the rising tide of violence and lawlessness, thousands of Filipinos fled the country, Merla and her family among them.
Like Hee Tak who couldn’t even boil water when she got married, Merla admits she didn’t learn how to cook until later in life. “I looked at cookbooks and that’s how I learned.” Even then, she cooked very simple dishes. Thankfully her children and husband were “not too choosy,” she says. “I just cooked up a big pot. (With) four boys and a girl, just as long as there’s meat they liked it!”
Despite having lived in the Philippines for many years, both Hee Tak and Merla cooked mainly Chinese cuisine. And when asked what’s their favorite dish to cook for family, both women said “lo bak,” which is pork braised in soy sauce (also known as red cooked pork), not to be mistaken with “lor bak go” which is radish/turnip cake. According to Merla, the words “lo” and “bak” signify water and meat coming together. [Update: A Cantonese friend recently told me that “lou” means “to braise” … makes sense, eh? This same friend also uses a combo of sweet and salty soy sauce in her family recipe.]
Merla points out that the famous Filipino dish, adobo, is a variation on this Chinese meat and soy sauce dish. And not surprisingly, Adobo is one dish Merla does make. With the addition of vinegar, a more distinct flavor comes out, she explains.
Soy sauce braised pork (a.k.a. lo bak, le dao yu, dao yu bak, etc.)
Every Chinese family has their own version of (and so it seems, a different name for) this dish. Merla used to make it with “san zhen bak,” three layered pork, which we call pork belly. But over the years, health concerns came to the forefront and she now prefers to use leaner cuts of meat. Instead of salty soy sauce, my mom used to add Indonesian sweet soy sauce and hard boiled eggs to the mix. My point is, let your creative juices flow, substitute beef, chicken or other cuts of pork, as well as vegetables.
Active time: 15 minutes
Makes: 6-8 servings
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1-1/2 pounds pork butt, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2″ ginger root, peeled and sliced into thin coins
3/4 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese wine or sherry
2 whole star anise (optional)
2 bay leaves (optional)
White pepper to taste
In a medium pot, heat oil over medium heat for about a minute (you want it hot but not smoking)and add sugar. Stir until sugar melts and brown globules form. Add pork and ginger and stir fry until no longer pink, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour or until meat is very tender. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve hot over rice.