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.
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.
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.
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)
- 3 pounds pork belly
- 1/2 cup sea salt
- 2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns (花椒)
- 2 tablespoons cloves
- 2 tablespoons fennel
- 6 whole star anise
- 3 ounces cassia bark (桂皮) about 2-inch square
- 1/4 cup soy sauce (生抽)
- 1/2 cup dark soy sauce (老抽)
- 1/4 cup white rice wine
- 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.