Belly belly good

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Chefs are going ga ga over pork belly.

Yes, this fatty, inexpensive cut is fast gaining favor and has risen on the trend-o-meter in the past couple of years. Here in Seattle, pork belly has top billing at fancy restaurants the likes of Tilth, Harvest Vine and Chez Shea.

But Asians who grew up on this humble cut have long enjoyed its succulent, full-fat flavor. Usually braised for hours on the stovetop — whether prepared the Chinese (red-cooked pork), Vietnamese (thit kho) or Indonesian (babi kecap) way — pork belly speaks of comfort food and brings us home to mama.

Pork belly, however, is not unknown to the American palate–it’s the part of the pig cured and smoked for bacon. The raw, unsmoked version comes with or without the skin and is commonly sold at Asian markets. With its increasing popularity, you should be able to special order pork belly from your local butcher, or try online sources like Flying Pigs Farm or Niman Ranch.

To make Asian braises, skin-on pork belly is essential to create the rich, velvety texture we’re used to, although other preparations may render the skin leathery and inedible. Not many pork cuts can withstand long braising, pork belly being one of the exceptions. In fact, braising is the typical way to cook pork belly, the slow, even heat transforming it into pure unctuous pleasure. Stop there or pan-fry or roast the belly to a crisp in the oven for a delicious crackle and crunch with each bite.

Ah … another reason why we love grandma and mum’s cooking!

Buying belly

Buy belly pieces between 2 and 3 inches thick and choose pieces that come from the front belly as opposed to the back belly for a good balance of meat and fat. How to tell? Look carefully at the layers and select a slab that is about 50/50 lean meat to fat.

Here is a Vietnamese braised pork belly (thit kho) dish adapted from a recipe Cathy Danh learned from her aunt.

Vietnamese Braised Pork Belly (Thit Kho)

Thit kho is one of those dishes rarely found at restaurants but eaten in all Vietnamese households, usually served with a canh (soup) dish for dinner. A meal during Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) would be incomplete without a kho (as these savory-sweet braised dishes based in a caramel sauce are called), and this pork and egg dish is a favorite among Southern Vietnamese. Coconut water (sometimes called juice) is not to be confused with coconut milk. It’s available in clear plastic bags in the frozen section, or canned in the drinks section.

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Boneless, skin-on pork belly (actually uncured/unsmoked bacon,) with the ideal ratio of lean meat to fat, or pork leg (rind-on) are traditional cuts for thit kho; but be warned, the resulting dish is not for the faint-hearted. For a lighter version, substitute the leaner Boston butt or use a mix of cuts. But try not to use all lean meat, the unctuous skin and fat is essential for the rich, velvety texture of this dish.

Time: 2 hrs
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon water
2 pounds pork belly (skin-on) or Boston butt (or 1 pound of each)
3 large garlic cloves, sliced
2 medium shallots, sliced (about 1/2 cup)
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 cups coconut water, strained of any meat
6 eggs (or 12 quail eggs), hard-boiled and shelled

Using a sharp knife, scrape off any stray hairs from the pork skin and cut meat into chunks 1-inch thick and 1-1/2 to 2-inches long.

In a 4-quart heavy bottom pan or Dutch oven, heat sugar and water over medium-high heat. Stir continuously until sugar melts. Continue cooking for another 10 to 12 minutes; syrup will form globules, turn a light golden hue and eventually caramelize into a thick amber liquid. You will smell a “burnt sugar” smell.

Add pork and raise heat to high. Stir for 1 minute to render some fat. Add garlic and shallots, and sauté 5 minutes until pork is browned but not cooked through. Lower heat to medium. Add fish sauce and pepper and sauté 1 minute to evenly coat meat.

Add coconut water. The liquid should barely cover pork. Bring to a boil. Add eggs, cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour (1-1/2 hours or longer if you want your meat melt-in-your-mouth tender), stirring occasionally to ensure eggs and meat are evenly coated with sauce. Pierce meat with the tip of a knife to test for tenderness. If at anytime the sauce drops to a level lower than one-third of pork, add water, 1/4 cup at a time.

Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Skim fat off surface with a ladle. (If you can wait, refrigerate overnight and allow fat to congeal on surface, making this task much easier.) Reheat over medium-low heat, taste sauce and adjust seasonings. Serve hot with steamed rice.

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