Pork could the called the key protein in Asian food, unlocking savory, sweet and succulent flavors in dishes like Cantonese char siu, Vietnamese bun cha, Japanese tonkatsu, Korean barbecue, Chinese-American restaurant takeout classics and more.
“There are so many different ways to present pork with Asian influences,” says Doug Medeiros, executive chef at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. “It’s important to focus on how the various textures and flavors of different cuts affect the final dish. The soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture of the fat and the chewy nature of some of the cuts are so revered in many Asian dishes.”
The many Asian cooking techniques and flavor profiles can take different parts of the pig, with all their delicious characteristics, into completely addictive crisp, chewy, fatty, pork umami territory—always a good thing.
For example, the rich, fatty nature of pork belly really shines when braised and then quickly crisped up for a Korean pork belly slider. Pork shoulder—the same cut that gives Carolina barbecue its foundation—also has a delightfully fatty nature, but with some chew, and is perfect in a rice bowl or in pho and even better on Asian-inspired nachos. And sliced pork loin or pork cutlets are the key for spicy stir-fries or crispy fried Japanese tonkatsu.
Pork belly: Better than bacon?
Those are strong words—bordering on blasphemy—but with all the amazing Asian dishes featuring pork belly, it’s an idea being seriously considered by Frank Bailey, executive chef at Boston College (BC).
“Bacon is good…everyone loves bacon,” Bailey says. “I don’t mean to speak ill of bacon, but bacon is bacon and that’s all it is.”
In contrast, pork belly “can be transformative,” he continues. “It is unctuous and coats the palate with flavor. It’s a rich, but versatile flavor that can be used in so many different ways.”
Just a little pork belly, fried and infused with five-spice powder, works magic on BC’s healthful ancient grain bowls: “In small quantities, it heightens the eating experience and brings out the flavor in the grains,” Bailey says.
The beautiful belly also shows up thinly sliced and roasted with aged Vermont cheddar cheese and kimchi in a mini grilled cheese sandwich that breaks all the rules and “creates an explosion of flavor for our guests,” Bailey says. Definitely a good thing!
Pork belly is also a cornerstone for incredible Asian-inspired dishes at the University of Virginia (UVA). When working with pork belly in Asian dishes like sliders on steamed buns, it’s important to marinate or brine the belly to infuse flavor, says Steven Strickler, GM of O’Hill Dining Hall at UVA. “In order to get that tender, flavorful texture pork belly is known for, you must cook it low and slow,” Strickler says. A quick sear at the end crisps up the belly beautifully.
One caveat for pork belly: Beware the blubber! Chefs says that’s a result of undercooking.
“It can be very rubbery and that’s not good,” says Executive Chef Daryl O’Donnell of the San Diego Convention Center, “and if you over-braise it, it can become very dry, believe it or not. You want to candy it; crisp it up and caramelize and reheat it and get the outside candied. Get beyond the blubber stage, but not so much that it dries out.
Buns and greens: Pork’s sidekicks
At the San Diego Convention Center, local greens liven up Asian pork dishes created by O’Donnell, who has gotten to know lots of cool, sustainably advanced local farms and connected their bounty with the big-volume menus for events at the convention center.
O’Donnell has been adding local micro greens, including micro daikon radish and micro cilantro along with local serrano chili peppers, to add that all-important crispy herbaceous contrast to the rich pork in bao buns stuffed with thinly sliced, honey-and-ginger flavored pork belly (The honey is also local).
The buns used at the convention center are premade bao buns that O’Donnell noticed at a recent trade show, and they are easily steamed then stuffed with spicy pork for a quick grab-and-go sensation.
Pork is also used in a lot of stir-fries at the convention center, flavor-boosted with housemade toasted sesame jam. The jam is made by toasting sesame seeds to bring out their flavor, then cooking them down into a simple syrup with honey, then blending it all together in a sweet, nutty paste.
Sauces make it simple
Condiments like that sesame jam go a long way in bringing Asian pork dishes together. That’s been the case for Chef Medeiros at Kansas State. He’s used the power of a great master sauce to take a different route to his own version authentic Asian food.
Medeiros noticed that “authenticity” was the be-all, end-all buzzword a few years ago for Asian menus on many campuses. Chefs were getting hyper-regional, recreating pho from travels to Vietnam and creating recipe after recipe trying to get the most traditional Asian dishes just perfect.
But as the question “What is authentic, really?” began to come up, Chef Medeiros searched his own sensory memories and ended up back in a cozy dorm room surrounded by the Chinese-American takeout containers so many Americans grew up with.
“I put a lot of thought into the direction I wanted to take in developing Asian food for our operations,” Medeiros recalls. “First, I thought of trying to make the most authentic, traditional dishes possible.”
But finding all the right, often obscure ingredients necessary proved challenging.
“As I put more thought into the subject, I found myself reminiscing about my college days…those weekend nights spent huddled in a circle on a dorm room floor with takeout containers and my best friends,” he says.
This revelation led Medeiros to focus on developing the sauces that made those Chinese restaurant takeout containers so memorable: the sticky-sweet General Tso sauce, sesame sauce and orange sauce.
In order to make the sauces efficient for big-volume cooking, Medeiros created a base sauce called “Basic Brown Sauce” that included soy sauce, garlic, ginger and green onions. This master sauce is made in large batches and then can be turned into other sauces with a few additional ingredients.
All the sauces go great with pork, Medeiros found, especially General Tso’s sauce. “The contrasting sweetness, acidity and spiciness all work really well with the rich flavor of pork,” he says. “While I understood that these weren’t traditionally authentic, I still loved these dishes and thought they might be comforting to our students in their new home away from home.”