With what, you say? Bak kut teh. It’s a Hokkien Chinese term which translates roughly as “meaty bone tea”, and it denotes a particular herbal, scenty soup spicing which is traditionally meant to warm you from within. It’s got yang, this stuff. So much so that my mother and brother won’t eat it, because it makes them turn bright red and start sweating.
In a period when my village is only accessible over a hump-backed bridge coated with half a foot of sheet ice (it’s been like this since before Christmas), red and sweating is exactly what I’m after. Hurrah for yang.
You’ll find bak kut teh served regularly in Malaysia and southern China. Bak kut teh mixtures are available in the UK in oriental supermarkets, in sealed packs containing a couple of tea-bag style sachets. These sachets are preferable to the whole spices, which you also see sometimes in neat plastic packs – the whole spices can make your recipe a bit gritty. If you’re making the traditional stew, just pop a bag in a crockpot with some rib bones, simmer for a few hours, and serve with rice or as a noodle soup with a generous slosh of soya sauce. It’s hearty stuff – the traditional mixture includes star anise, angelica, cinnamon and cloves. This mixture is, somewhat eccentrically, close to what you’ll find in a British Christmas cake.
The recipe below is not a traditional use of a bak kut teh sachet, but it’s none the worse for that. Here, you’ll be combining those spices with rice wine, several gloppy Chinese sauces, honey, spring onions and garlic, and using this stock to perfume a slab of pork belly. The belly meat is pressed under weights overnight in the fridge, then chopped and fried in a wok until it’s crispy. I know, I know: but the long simmering will render a lot of the grease out of the meat, and sometimes the weather just calls out for fatsome, sticky pork.
I served mine with some sticky hoi sin sauce to dip, alongside a little of the stock, thickened with cornflour, to moisten the rice we ate with it. Hang onto the stock – you can freeze it and treat it as a master stock. I poached a couple of hams in mine, leaving them spiced and savoury but not overtly Chinese-tasting; it’s back in the freezer now, and I have plans to poach a chicken in it next. This procedure may sound overly parsimonious to those used to stock cubes, but it’s a method that produces a stock with an incredible depth of flavour, and you can keep using it indefinitely as a poaching liquid, adding a bit more water or wine and some more aromatics every time you cook, and making sure that every time it comes out of the freezer the stock gets boiled very thoroughly. There are restaurants in Hong Kong which claim that their master stock has been on the go for more than a hundred years.
To poach one boneless pork belly (enough for four, but be warned, this is very moreish) you’ll need:
1 boneless pork belly, with rind
1 bak kut teh sachet
Water to cover the belly (about a litre)
150ml Chinese rice wine
5 tablespoons light soy sauce
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons hoi sin sauce
3 tablespoons honey
2 anise stars
1 bulb garlic
6 spring onions, tied in a knot
Groundnut oil to fry
Stir the liquid ingredients together in a saucepan that fits the pork reasonably closely, and slide the pork in with the star anise, garlic and spring onions. Bring to a gentle simmer, skim off any froth that rises to the surface with a slotted spoon, cover and continue to simmer gently for two hours.
Remove the pork from the cooking liquid carefully and place it on a large flat dish with high enough sides to catch any liquid that comes out of the meat as you press it. Strain the poaching liquid if you plan on using it as a master stock. Place a plate or pan lid large enough to cover the whole belly on top of the meat (the skin side) and weigh it down. I used a heavy cast-iron pan lid and all the weights from my kitchen scales. Cover the whole assembly with a teatowel and leave it in the fridge for 24 hours.
When you are ready to eat, remove the pressed meat to a chopping board and use a sharp knife to cut it into bite-sized pieces, about 2cm square. Bring about 5cm depth of groundnut oil to a high temperature in a wok, and fry the pieces of pork in batches of five or six pieces until golden (this should only take a couple of minutes per batch). Serve with shredded spring onion and some hoi sin sauce with steamed rice and a vegetable.