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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Five Spice Braised Pork Belly: part I


Braised dishes are perfect for these windy, rainy days we've had recently around here. It's perhaps a nod to my Asian heritage that my favorite way to braise is not with wine or rich stock, but simply with water and Five Spice powder. Western cooks turn their proverbial nose at braising with water, as my friend Daniel Patterson pointed out in his recent article in the New York Times, but Asian cooks have been braising with water for generations.

The key, besides long braising time, is to make sure that the protein you use has enough fat and gelatin in the connective tissues to lend an unctuous quality to the resulting braising liquid. My protein of choice is pork belly, especially if I can find one with skin and rib bones still attached. When I use leaner protein such as chicken, I always throw in the neck and feet into the braising liquid as well. They are entirely edible, but even if you don't plan on gnawing at them, they provide the extra oomph you can taste in the sauce.

Browning the meat is less important, despite what Daniel told you in that article, and might even produce a less than perfect outcome. Pork skin, for example, can discolor and might even break when subjected directly to dry heat on the pan. There's nothing much wrong with that, but I love the unbroken skin which, when bitten into, resists ever so slightly before letting you into that meltingly delicious fatty layer just underneath.

One thing I highly suggest you do is make your own Five Spice powder. It's so easy to do, and the result will be vastly superior to most commercial brands available in the west, which I find too overwhelmed with anise. Should I want a purely anise-flavor braise I wouldn't bother with Five Spice in the first place. I also find that most spice blends use the cheaper and more easily available black peppercorns instead of the proper Sichuan peppercorns. And if you know anything about anything at all you'd know that those two "peppercorns" share very little besides the misleading name. Sichuan "peppercorns" are not even peppercorns, but dried outer pods of prickly ash fruits. They have an acidic note and gives a tingling sensation on the palate - both entirely absent in the ubiquitous black peppers.

There are so many "recipes" for five spice blends on the internet, most of which concentrate on five kinds of spice: star anise, sichuan peppercorns, cassia (a type of Asian cinnamon, you can substitute regular cinnamon), and fennel. It seems that people take the "five" in "Five Spice" to mean a blend of five different spices. This is not entirely correct. The "five" in Five Spice actually refers to the balance of five basic elements: earth, fire, water, air, and metal. The Five Spice powder was originally used in Chinese medicine to restore the balance of the five elements in the Chi or the life energy in our bodies. So, besides the five basic spices, Five Spice powder may contain other spices such as coriandar seeds, cumin or anise seeds (instead of fennel seeds), black or green cardamom, and even nutmeg.

In my own Five Spice blend, I started out with equal amount, by weight, of the five basic spices, though recently I've been using cumin seeds instead fennel seeds. I found that the mix of star anise, cassia and fennel seeds, all providing strong anise-y notes, became a little overpowering, so I opted for cumin seeds, which are very similar to fennel seeds but a little less anise-y and a bit more earthy. I also cut down the amount of clove by half and added coriandar seeds and (sometimes) black cardamom to my blend, following the advice of a spice maker I knew in Bangkok's Chinatown.

I recommend starting with whole spices if you can find them - ground spices lose their potency quickly, and you never know how old they've been loitering on the shelf. Starting with whole spices also allow you to dry roast them for a bit before grinding, which helps turn certain compounds in the spices more volatile, so your Five Spice blend ends up more fragrant and flavorful. You can easily double or quadruple the recipe to share with friends or keep for future use. Kept well in an airtight jar, your spice blend should last a few months in good shape.

I have a small coffee grinder I use for grinding spices. it's just an inexpensive Kitchenaid blade coffee grinder you can get on amazon for not very much money. (Braun makes one even cheaper, if a bit smaller, though I prefer mine.) I grind my own chile blends and spice blends, so it's a very good investment for me. It doesn't take up much room in my crowded cabinet either. If you don't have a spice grinder, just use a heavy mortar and pestle - it's a bit more elbow grease but you can do it!

Five Spice Powder

30g (1oz) star anise
30g (1oz) cassia (or cinnamon)
30g (1oz or 5 tbsp) sichuan peppercorn
30g (1oz) cumin seeds
15g (0.5oz) clove
7g (0.25oz) coriandar seeds
black cardamom (to taste, optional)

On a dry pan over medium heat, roast each spice separately until just fragrant. They roast at different time so the easiest and safest thing to do is use a small pan and roast each one separately. Let the spices come back close to room temperature before grinding.

Depending on the size of your grinder, you might need to grind the spices in batches. In this case, it helps to grind each one separately as well. Blend all the ground spices together well in a large bowl before transferring to spice jars.

(click here to go to Part II)


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