“Sweet and salty, creamy and bouncy, tart and sour, sweet and salty again.”
~ TAIWAN STREET FOOD SERIES – Part 3 ~
Few things beat waking up to the warming, intoxicating scent of braised pork belly cooking on the stove. The dish was often made the day before it was meant to be eaten, usually a festival day, and re-heated on the day itself to allow the spices to infuse the meat and bring out the flavours more intensely. As children, by the time we got out of bed, the smells from the kitchen would hit us, and I for one would begin to look forward to mealtime. I guess that’s when the strong connections between smell and taste were made and would continue to stay with me till this day. While words sometimes fail me, scents seldom do.
Gua Bao 刮包 is a slice of pork belly sandwiched between a steamed bun, not unlike a mini hamburger or a slider. Often found in the famous street and night markets in Taiwan, the key is in the meat. The pork has to be sufficiently tender and fatty. An all-lean slab of pork won’t do. It’s topped with a sprinkling of peanuts, cilantro and mustard greens. I added both sugar and salt to the peanuts to further enhance the savoury flavours. There is sweet and salty, creamy and a bit of bounciness from the pork, tart and sour from the mustard greens, clean and refreshing from cilantro, and more sweet and salty from peanuts. This is a dish for a special occasion to be indulged sparingly, so when it is made, I am sure to have lots of leftover gravy to be eaten over rice on another day or have extra buns to sop it up. It really tastes better overnight and re-heated, or several nights!
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Tip: The buns can be easily found in Asian grocery stores in the frozen aisle. I learnt that it’s best to have an idea how large you want the pork slices to be – it depends on how large the buns are. Too thin and there is not enough meat and juices to be soaked up by the bread; too thick and the balance between fluffy bland bread and rich oily meat is lost. Generally, a good size would be about the same width as the bun and 1/2″ thick.
Tip: Peanut powder is sometimes used as a topping, and this can also be found with the Asian groceries. However, you can easily make your own, with the advantage of suiting the size of the peanuts to your preference. Just take regular or roasted peanuts, pound or ground finely to your desired size, then add salt and sugar. For 2 Tbsp of grounded peanuts, add 1 tsp sugar and 1 tsp of salt (if not already salted, else adjust according to taste). Mix well and store in an airtight container.
- 8 white buns, steamed
- 1 lb pork belly 五花肉, skin on, cut into ½" slices & as wide as the buns
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 4 slices ginger
- 3-4 star anise
- 2 Tbsp brown sugar
- 1 Tbsp pepper corns
- 1 tsp five-spice powder
- ¼ cup light soy sauce
- ¼ cup dark soy sauce
- ½ cup Chinese cooking wine
- 1-2 thai chillis, de-seeded & sliced (optional)
- 4 cups water
- A handful of salted or roasted peanuts
- Salt and sugar
- 1 cup Chinese preserved mustard greens (available in Asian grocery store)
- Cilantro (for garnish)
- Brown pork belly over medium-high heat in a pot till lightly browned on both sides. Set aside.
- Add garlic, ginger and chillis (if using) into the pot and cook till fragrant.
- Add star anise, pepper corns and sugar, and cook till sugar begins to melt. Add rice wine.
- When it just comes to a boil, add five-spice powder, light and dark soy sauces, and water, and bring to a boil again.
- Place pork belly into the gravy, cover and simmer over low heat for 1-2 hours, till meat is very tender.
- Meanwhile, ground peanuts with mortar/pestle or food processor. For 2 Tbsp of grounded peanuts, add 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp sugar.
- Rinse mustard greens under running water to get rid of some of the saltiness. Coarsely chop and set aside.
- To serve, place a piece of pork belly between a hot steamed bun, top with mustard greens, sprinkle some chopped peanut and garnish with cilantro.
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