Monday, November 13, 2006
This wonderfully comforting dish of meat steamed with broken toasted rice I first spied in my current favourite Chinese cookbook, Land of Plenty. The book's version was called Fen Zheng Niu Rou ('niu' meaning beef) - so intriguingly unlike any Chinese dish I knew that I had to make it. Besides the rice, the recipe called for beef marinated in fiery bean sauce and lots of Sichuan pepper to finish. The melting texture contrasted gorgeously with the intensity of the seasonings. Not one week later, a Chinese friend served me a luxurious but milder version, made with pork belly and mushrooms, which I liked even better.
This recipe needs some advance work; the meat has to marinate, and the dish also needs at least a couple of hours to cook with steam (which the bone dry winter air at my place just slurps up). The long, slow, moist cooking suits less expensive cuts of meat - you can use lamb as well as beef or pork, or ribs if you find the richness of pork belly overwhelming. You can also use less meat and try adding some soaked dried mung beans. About half an hour before the meat is done, you can slip some squash, carrots, or other vegetable on top of the bowl in the steamer to cook at the same time.
In advance: Cut 1/2 to 1 lb of pork belly, with skin if possible, into thick one-inch strips and place in a plastic bag or other marinating container. Splash with 3 tablespoons of soy sauce and a couple tablespoons of Chinese cooking wine or sherry, and leave to marinate for a few hours. Toast 2/3 cup of rice over medium heat with two star anise in a dry pan as rice turns opaque, then brown. When rice is toasty but not burned let cool, reserving star anise. Grind rice in a blender to the texture of couscous. Soak 3-4 dried shiitake mushrooms, and soak a couple of handfuls rinsed dried mung beans if you are using them.
When you are ready for steaming, remove meat from marinade and toss with toasted rice, reserved star anise, drained mushrooms, and drained mung beans if you have them. Place in a glass or stainless steel bowl inside a large pot fitted with a steamer and steam for 2 to 2.5 hours until meat is very tender, adding water to the pot if necessary. Taste for seasoning balance and sprinkle with green onions and sesame oil before serving.