How America’s Best Chinese Restaurant Prepares Pork Belly

 Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images


In a new cookbook, co-written with Lucky Peach’s Chris Ying, Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese tells the story of finding his voice as a chef and forging an idiosyncratic, rebellious relationship with Chinese food. Throwing caution (and tradition) to the wind, he combines scrupulous, exact culinary skills with an intuitive common sense about what will taste good and be nourishing without boring the palate. What results is a menu full of rule-breaking surprises: bright green matcha sprinkled over noodles and mapo tofu diluted into rich marrow broth as a vessel for chewy ramen.

The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook gives us a peek into the creative process and the sense of improvisation behind these dishes. Rather than preening and polishing the recipes to perfection, Bowien often keeps his menu items in flux, evolving from season to season and from year to year. He shows us how to tweak a savory egg custard to keep it seasonal. Rather than providing one definitive mapo tofu recipe, Bowien gives us three. The same goes for dan dan noodles.


But for all of these evolutions and variations, the book is also full of carefully composed, free-standing, and nearly perfect dishes like Bowien’s Tiki Pork Belly. “Pork belly’s obviously always a crowd pleaser, and it’s kind of a secret back-pocket dish for a lot of chefs to have,” he told me recently. “We knew that people were expecting us to push the boundary and do something different. And for us, we said, ‘Let’s do it, but let’s not take it too seriously.’ “

In an era when pork belly is as commonplace on restaurant menus as kale salads, it can be a challenge to keep things interesting. But for Danny Bowien, transforming the ubiquitous cut of fatty meat into something unexpected was a welcome challenge, and one that could be met head-on with cocktail umbrellas.

Bowien’s version is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Chinese-American restaurants of yore that catered to Americans’ once insatiable appetites for Tiki kitsch. He adorns his crispy pork with pickled pineapple, maraschino cherries, mandarin oranges, and a smattering of toasted coconut and macadamia nuts. As he writes in the book, “It’s sweet and salty and sour and a little bit funny.”

Tiki Pork Belly

SERVES 4 AS PART OF A LARGER MEAL

Note: If you’d rather not bust out a fryer, or are low on vegetable or peanut oil, you can panfry the pork instead—in which case you should cut the belly into ¾-inch-thick slabs rather than 2-inch cubes.

Ingredients 

  • soy caramel
  • about 1 tbsp vegetable or peanut oil
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 8 to 10 cups vegetable or peanut oil, for deep-frying
  • 1 lb braised pork belly, chilled and cut into 2-inch cubes
  • 1 cup chili-pickled pineapple, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 10 canned mandarin orange segments
  • ¼ cup unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted
  • ¼ cup macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped
  • 4 maraschino cherries
  • 4 cocktail umbrellas (optional)

Directions 

  1. Prepare the soy caramel: Heat a small nonstick saucepan over medium-high heat and coat it with a thin film, about 1 tbsp, of oil. Pour the sugar into the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until it has melted and caramelized into a light amber color, about 5 minutes. Add the dry spices and toast in the caramel for a few seconds, then add the soy sauce, fish sauce, and 2 tbsp water. The liquid will hiss and bubble and the caramel may solidify. Stir continuously until any hardened caramel has dissolved into the liquid.
  2. Strain the hot caramel through a heatproof fine-mesh strainer into a heatproof bowl (or just pluck out the large spices) and reserve in a very warm place (like a hot water bath) until ready to use, or rewarm when ready to use. It will thicken slightly as it cools.
  3. In a deep pot or wok, heat 3 to 4 inches of oil to 350°, or use a deep fryer. Working in batches, if necessary, add the pork belly to the hot oil and fry until crisp and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes, then drain on paper towels.
  4. To serve, spoon a little pool of soy caramel onto a serving platter. Place the crispy pork belly pieces on top of the caramel and coat with more caramel. Artfully intermingle the pickled pineapple and mandarin orange segments in between and around the pieces of belly. Sprinkle the coconut flakes and macadamia nuts on top of everything, then finish with the maraschino cherries and cocktail umbrellas, if using them.

 

Chili-Pickled Pineapple

MAKES ABOUT 4 CUPS

This is the perfect accessory for the Tiki Pork Belly (page 218)—the heat and acid make a nice contrast to the sweetness of the soy caramel and the richness of the pork belly. You could also try the pickles as a pizza topping or as a rim garnish for a Mai Tai or an exotic Shirley Temple.

Ingredients 

  • 1 small pineapple
  • 1 (4-inch) square dashi kombu, wiped with a damp cloth and cut into 5 or 6 pieces
  • 1 serrano pepper, cut into ¹⁄8-inch-thick coins
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 cups rice vinega
  • 3 chiles de árbol

Directions 

  1. Trim and peel the pineapple. Halve it lengthwise and then halve it again into quarters. Remove the core, then cut the flesh into ½-inch-thick wedges. (You can slice the pineapple into smaller pieces once it’s pickled.)
  2. Place some of the pineapple wedges in the bottom of a heatproof container — a wide-mouthed 1-quart glass jar is ideal — and top with a piece of kombu and a few pieces of serrano pepper. Layer on more pineapple, kombu, and serrano, and repeat until you’ve filled the container; there should be very little room to spare.
  3. Put the sugar, vinegar, and dried chiles in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour the liquid over the pineapple, covering the fruit completely. Top with a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the brine. Seal with an airtight lid or two layers of plastic wrap and leave at room temperature overnight.
  4. Store the pickles in the fridge for up to 2 weeks — after that, they will probably be too sour. Fish pineapple chunks out of the brine as you need them and slice to your desired size. Once you’ve eaten the pineapple, the pickling liquid can be reused, but note that it will have developed a considerable kick.