So it’s mid-Jan and the wave of 2015 New Year’s resolutions is in full swing with ambitions of improved fitness, weight loss and better eating. So with the latest celebrity diets grazing the covers of January magazines and the more crowded than usual ladies locker room at my local gym, it seems I’ve chosen a rather contrarian inaugural post for the launch of my blog. Enter, Koh Juh Yuk. Despite my poor phonetic translation, I would best describe this dish as tender pork belly in a bath of soy sauce, more soy sauce, fish sauce and some brown rock sugar.
I remember eating this dish as a young child with a bowl of steaming hot plain Jasmine rice. It had to be plain because the savory braising liquid was the best part and the perfectly plump granules of white rice were a mere vehicle to soak up the sticky rich gravy only hours of low and slow cooking could produce. And it had to be steaming because at the very moment when the robustly flavored pork belly meets the understated rice, a waft of the most satisfyingly yummy aromas would be released, better than a sum of its parts (in the world of finance, we call that synergy).
What I didn’t understand as a young girl was the whole concept of ‘umami’. Some three decades later and season one deep into watching Mind of a Chef where David Chang talks non-stop about umami and flashes his rosy grin, I finally realized what I was eating all this time! For those who have no idea what I’m talking about and have no idea who Anthony Bourdain or David Chang are, this will help to bridge the gap.
The dish also happens to be dead simple, requiring only 5 ingredients. Pork belly is a beautiful thing and an incredibly versatile cut of meat! You may find the selection of ingredients below a bit peculiar but if you like any or all of bacon, porchetta, sausages, Chinese roasted pork, then this is not that far off. Consider it an East Asian take on your Sunday brunch staple but slathered in a different Umami goodness and not served with eggs – although, that might not be a terrible idea. This became the dish that my friends and family looked forward to when coming over to my mom’s place. And if you still don’t believe me, my sister used to beg my mom to cook it up only so she could sherpa it in a tofu container on a three hour bus ride when visiting her ex-boyfriend back in her university days. I would like to publicly apologize to all those trapped on the bus, this post should explain a lot!
My mom didn’t do this but I’d plate it in a warmed bowl and finish it off with a sprinkling of thinly sliced green onions and birds eye peppers to add some kick, color and amp up the visual appeal. Koh juh yuk is not a beauty queen of a dish (sorry mom!) My sister and I were raised in a highly efficient and orderly household by working immigrant parents. The beautification of food did not rank highly on their list of priorities. While most the food we ate growing up never won any medals in the ‘looks’ category, I assure you that the food itself was damn good!
Momma Tan’s Koh Juh Yuk
- 4 lbs of pork belly, blanched and well-trimmed of sinew or any obvious veins and cut crosswise into 1×2 inch cubes (try to ensure that each piece has a layer of skin, fat and meat)
- 200 ml light soy sauce
- 125 ml sweet soy sauce (kecap manis and if you cannot find it, make it here)
- 125 cup fish sauce
- 2/3 piece of brown rock sugar – can be substituted for 50 grams of brown or demera and a tsp of molasses if you have it
Put washed, uncut pork belly into a large heat proof bowl. Pour boiling water over meat and let sit a minute or two. Carefully drain the pork belly and pat dry with paper towel and cut into 1×2 inch pieces.
Put the soy sauces, fish sauce and brown sugar into a dutch oven or large pot fitted with a tight lid. Bring to boil until sugar has dissolved.
Add the pork and stir to coat. Bring to a boil and lower heat to med-low. Cover and braise gently for 2.5 hours stirring every 20 minutes to ensure the bottom does not stick. Pork belly is ready when the pieces have rendered some of its fat, taken on the color of a deep mahogany brown and tender when pierced with a fork or prodded with a chopstick.
Spend the time trimming your meat or ask your friendly butcher to help you out. My mom swears that there is a vein that runs through the pork belly and removing it is key! Apparently, if left in, it may have an unpleasant, slightly bitter taste. This dish also keeps very well and can be made in advance, microwaved (keep it covered!!!) and can even be well-wrapped and frozen. To defrost, just pop it into the fridge for 24 hours and nuke to warm. Another consideration would be the addition of a small piece of fresh ginger at the start of the cooking time which might bring a nice subtle flavor to the dish. I’ve never done this so if anyone does, let me know! Kecap Manis (pronounced as ketchup) might be a new ingredient to most and could be a bit of a challenge to find. It is often used in Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine and tastes like sweetened soy sauce flavored with garlic, palm sugar, star anise and ginger with a maple syrup-like consistency. Finally, turn on the exhaust! You will be happy you did.