Charcutepalooza Goes East

Five-Spice Cured Bacon

Since the Zhou Dynasty (周朝 about 3,000 years ago) the twelfth month of the Chinese calendar has been designated as a time for ritual sacrifice to honor the gods and ancestors. This ritual is known as “laji” (臘祭). Animals were hunted for offerings, and the meat consumed during the ceremony. Over time preservation techniques were developed to conserve the leftovers for winter consumption. One curing technique known as “la” (臘) consists of salting and drying of the meat. This brings me to the February challenge to make cured pork belly or bacon for Charcutepalooza.

Charcutepalooza
  • What’s with the Radicals
  • Many people confuse the “la” written as 臘 for meat curing with the character for wax, which is also pronounced “la” but written as 蠟. The “la” for meat curing originated from “lie” written as 獵 for hunting. It evolved from the “laji” ritual or 臘祭, where the hunted meat is transformed into cured meat. The only difference in all these characters is the left radical. In “lie” for hunting the radical is animal, and in “la” for meat curing it is meat. (Meat by the way is written as moon when used in radicals.) The radical for “la,” as in wax, on the other hand is insect. Are you confused? Don’t worry. So are the Chinese.

If you’re a follower of online food and cooking happenings and have not heard of Charcutepalooza, you might as well be living in the online hinterland. It is a year long challenge originated by my neighbor Kim Foster and a good friend Cathy Barrow that has become an online runaway phenomenon. Bloggers and cooks everywhere are invited to make cured meat every month based on a different technique. Then they are encouraged to write their experience for everyone to share. It started with duck prosciutto in January when nearly three hundred participants responded. I decided to join in the fray for the February challenge by making cured bacon with a Chinese twist.

Cured bacon, or “larou” (臘肉), is a southern China specialty. The “la” technique calls for curing the meat in a liquid of salt, soy sauces, sugar, wine and spices, and then air-drying. Occasionally the meat is smoked after being dried. The meat used for “la” curing can be pork belly, duck, fish or sometimes venison. Traditionally the “la” technique calls for the meat to be brought out into the sun for drying a few hours each day. This method promotes dehydration and also partially renders the fat from the meat. The heat from the sun also gives a fragrant nutty taste to the finish product. For my attempt I decided to sun dry the bacon strips in my very sunny window during the day, and store them hanging in the refrigerator overnight.

Spices for Curing Chinese Bacon

Frying Spice Salt for Curing Bacon

Curing Chinese Bacon with Spice Salt

Third Day after Curing Bacon in Chinese Spices

Sun Drying Five-Spice Cured Bacon

In the Cantonese tradition the curing liquid is made with salt, soy sauce, sugar and rose flavored wine, while in the Sichuan tradition spices are added. I chose to make the Sichuan version of five-spice cured bacon. You are probably already quite familiar with five-spice powder. It is a spice mix that’s used in barbeque and braised meat. It is also often blended with salt and served as a condiment. Instead of using the powder I am going to use whole spices in the curing liquid. This is a technique used by professional chefs so the meat will not contain gritty spices at the end.

Five-spice is most often made from a combination of Sichuan peppercorn, clove, star anise, fennel and cassia bark (similar to cinnamon). Although these are the basic spices there are many variations to the formula, which are often held as closely gauarded family or trade secrets. In my recipe I am using the basic five spices in about equal proportions.

Air Drying Five-Spice Cured Bacon

I started my meat curing a few days ago so I am rather late for the Charcutepalooza deadline. This means that I will not be able to actually share the tasting of my home cured bacon now. But I plan to make a dish of stir-fried five-spice cured bacon with winter bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms. I will share this recipe with you in my next post. Until then happy Charcutepalooza!

  • Five-Spice Cured Bacon (五香臘肉)

    • Preparation time: 45 minutes
    • 3 lb. fresh pork belly
    •  
    • 1 cups sea salt
    • 2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns (花椒)
    • 2 tablespoons cloves (丁香)
    • 2 tablespoons fennel (小茴)
    • 6 whole star anise (八角)
    • 3-inch square (about 3 oz.) cassia bark (桂皮)
    •  
    • 1/4 cup light soy sauce (生抽)
    • 1/2 cup dark soy sauce (老抽)
    • 1/4 cup white rice wine (baijiu 白酒)
    • 1 cup sugar
    • Cut the pork belly into long strips of about one and one half inch wide. Wash the pork thoroughly and pat dry with a paper towel. Arrange the pork belly in a glass baking dish or any large enough container made from a non salt-reactive material.
    • In a dry wok heat the sea salt along with all the spices. Stir-fry the spice salt constantly until you begin to smell the spices. Turn the heat off and let cool to room temperature.
    • Mix the soy sauce, wine and sugar together and pour over the pork belly. Spread the spice salt over the pork belly making sure the spices are submerged in the liquid.
    • Cure the pork belly in the refrigerator for at least three days. Flip the pork belly once a day to ensure even curing. The salt will draw moisture out from the meat, so do not be alarmed if the liquid level in the container rises.
    • After the pork is cured discard the liquid along with the spices. Use a paring knife and puncture the skin on one end of the pork strip. Thread butcher twine through the hole and tie it in a loop. Repeat this for every strip of pork.
    • Hang the pork strips on a wood dowel and secure in a cool cellar. Dry the meat for at least three days. The drying process can be enhanced if the meat is brought out to the sun for three or four hours daily.
    • Once dried the cured bacon can be kept fresh in the refrigerator for about two weeks. It can also be frozen and kept for six to nine months.
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13 Comments

  1. Posted February 16, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Amazing! I can almost smell it through the screen. Thanks for breaking down the Chinese characters too!

  2. Posted February 16, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    This is fantastic and inspirational. Great work.

  3. KDA
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the clarification (sort of) on the radicals. I was always curious about 腊肉’s meaning. I see strips of pork belly hanging in my kitchen very soon.

  4. Me
    Posted February 17, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Hello, I have a question. Your sea salt looks quite large and grainy- 1 cup of it is probably a lot less by weight than one cup of my sea salt which is much finer (more will pack into the cup). Could you tell me either how much by weight of salt you are using, or what exact salt you used? Thanks- awesome blog btw, just discovered it and it’s perfect for my Chinese (especially sichuan ^^) food OBSESSION.

  5. Posted February 17, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Hi Me, I’m glad you enjoy Red Cook. I use sea salt bought from a Chinese grocery store. It is from Korea and has a really nice flavor. One cup of that salt weigh about 8 oz. I also like to use rock sugar for cooking. So if you’d like to use rock sugar the equivalent weight for one cup of granulated sugar is also about 8 oz. Melt the rock sugar in the liquid ingredients first and cool down to room temperature before curing. Enjoy!

  6. Posted February 17, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    As a fellow charcutepalooza who is not doing all the challenges including this one (so many reasons) – of all the posts I have read this one makes me the sadest not to have tried.

    Just the cure alone is mouthwatering. Once you have the bacon cured to your liking can you give a recipe you would use it with?

    If I didn’t want to cure the pork belly but rather would want to braise it, could I use the same ingredients minus the salt and less of the sugar, to braise it with?

  7. Posted February 18, 2011 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    Hi Natalie, Thanks for your wonderful comment about my Charcutepalooza bacon post. I do love Chinese cured bacon and make all kinds of dishes with it. It can be used in stir-fries, fried rice, turnip cakes and many more preparations. I will be posting a stir-fry recipe in a day or two. As for recipe for fresh pork belly try my red cooked pork dish. You will love it…

    http://www.redcook.net/2009/03/01/red-cooked-pork-redux/

  8. Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Kian, this is such a lovely post. The tradition of curing exists in every culture, and I love the way you bring that out in your writing and your recipes, in equal measure. I am currently looking for more pork bellies – truly can’t wait to try this.

  9. Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks Cathy! I really enjoyed making this five-spice cured bacon. I am now enjoying delicious stir-fries, omelet and fried rice all with the bacon.

  10. Posted March 1, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    LOVE this post! I think it’s awesome that you are bringing your heritage to the Charcutepalooza challenges. This sounds so lovely.

    You have inspired me to make another batch of homemade bacon with some Indian spices – time to get another pork belly!

    • Posted March 1, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Hi Vivek, I’m glad this post inspired you to incorporate your heritage into Charcutepalooza. I think it is wonderful to learn that meat curing and preservation is universal. Every culinary tradition has one method or another of preserving food.

  11. Posted April 11, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    oh my goodness. i can’t believe you actually made this from scratch. but i loved looking at the photos of your process. you are amazing!

    • Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Betty, You know this cured bacon was delicious. It is really not as difficult as you think it is to make.

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