Something magical happens when you combine thinly sliced pieces of pork belly with an assertive pickled vegetable and tofu. I didn’t realize that kind of synergy till I made Korean tofu stir-fried with kimchi and pork belly (dubu kimchi). It’s a drinking classic, I was told by my friend Linda Lim, a Korea- born woman whose petite size belies her enormous ability to eat and drink.
I made dubu kimchi repeatedly to get the recipe down for the tofu book, and in the process learned to understand how the three ingredients worked. The pork belly lent its wonderful richness to soften the blow of the harsh kimchi, which had to be the stinky, mature kind for the dish to shine. The tofu played an intermediary role to soak up the meat’s richness and the umami funk of the pickled cabbage.
That said, I couldn’t resist making this stir-fry from Naomi Duguid’s sensational Burma: Rivers of Flavor, released just this fall. With her former husband, she wrote landmark works such as Beyond the Great Wall, and Hot, Sour, Salty Sweet. This is her solo performance and it’s compelling, well sized for cooking and reading. Unlike her previous large scale productions, Burma is a book meant for using in the kitchen or holding on the sofa, not displaying on the coffee table.
Naomi has been traveling to Burma for decades, observing, tasting, and noting a great deal of detail about the country, which stands at a true culinary crossroads of South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia. All this means that if you’re adept at cooking foods from Asia and venturing to Asian markets, you’ll find Burma to be a splendid book to cook from. If you’re not adept at those cuisines, then Naomi gives you a pass and says it’s okay to just be an armchair cook and eater. In any event, you’ll relish the heartfelt writing and immense research in Burma.
For this stir-fry, you have to go to a Chinese or Southeast Asian market because you need pickled mustard greens. I have made it in the past but it an easy-to-find import from Thailand. The 10.5-ounce (300-gram) packages are often sold unrefrigerated. Compared to homemade mustard greens (made from large slightly bittersweet gai choy), the packaged stuff is super salty. I rinse and squeeze it firmly to reduce the saltiness.
While you’re at the Asian market, get fresh pork belly (thit ba chi in Vietnamese). Naomi’s recipe in Burma called for 2 pounds (900 grams) of skin on belly, trimmed down to 1 3/4 pounds (840 grams) once the skin was removed. I used half of that amount and was fine. My pork belly was labeled “lean” and the result was good but not as luscious as I would have liked. The lesson: Go for the fat. The pieces below were lacking unctuousness.
Additionally, if the Asian market has pre-sliced pork belly – buy it and save yourself time; the skin is usually already removed. If the skin remains, the slices are so thin that you may like its slight chewiness. Keep it. For the tofu, extra-firm holds its shape well for the rough and tumble journey in the wok. My husband and I ate this with rice for a traditional meal. Naomi suggests it atop polenta too. I bet it would be nice as a taco filling as well, maybe with a squirt of Sriracha.
Three Layer or Five Layer Pork Belly
In Burma, this recipe is called "Three-Layer Pork with Mustard Greens and Tofu." Naomi points out that in Burmese, Thai and Chinese, pork belly is called three layers for the layering of fat and lean. In Vietnamese, it's more or less the same idea of 3 layers in the term thit ba chi.
I've seen Chinese reference to pork belly as "five flower pork" to denote the striations. My sense is that it depends on how the lean the pork belly is. The fattier pork belly tends to look like there are just 3 layers of fat and lean where as the 5-layer one has more layers. If you count the layers on the lean pieces I have above, there are 4 layers, excluding the skin. Any thoughts on this?
For presenting in this post, I went for clarification and called it pork belly.
Burmese Pork Belly, Pickled Mustard Greens and Tofu
Yields: 4 servings
- 1 pound / 450 g pork belly, in one piece, or 14 ounces / 390 g pre-sliced pork belly
- 1/4 cup peanut oil or vegetable oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, quartered and thinly sliced crosswise
- One (10.5 oz / 300 g) package pickled mustard greens, rinsed well, cored and thinly sliced crosswise (2 cups total)
- 12 oz / 360 g extra-firm tofu, thinly sliced into bite-sized pieces
- About 1/2 teaspoon salt
- About 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
- If using a whole piece of pork belly, cut it across the grain into 2-inch (5 cm) wide strips. Use a boning knife to remove the skin (like you would do to a salmon filet); save or discard the skin. Cut the pork belly across the grain as thin as possible. (If you have pre-sliced pork belly cut it into pieces about 2 inched (5 cm) wide.) Set aside.
- Heat a wok over medium heat. Add the oil, then the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and softened, about 5 minutes. Bank the onion, raise the heat to medium-high, then add the pork. Cook, turning and pressing for 3 to 5 minutes, until all the pork has changed color and started to render its fat; a little browning is great. Add the mustard greens, stir well to combine and cook for several minutes to heat through.
- Add the tofu and salt. Gently stir or better yet, give the wok some solid jerks to combine the ingredients to minimally break up the tofu. Put a few pieces of tofu on the wall of the wok to let them brown and take on some character.
- Add the water, cover, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Occasionally uncover and jerk the pan to toss the ingredients. The dish is done when the mustard greens have softened and the flavors blended. Off heat, add the cilantro. Let this dish sit for about 10 minutes to develop its flavor. Serve hot, lukewarm, or at room temperature.