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Potluck Staples 1: Crispy, juicy, roast pork!

Like the genius that I am, I decided it would be a good idea to schedule a potluck lunch at work one business day before going on leave. You know, while I was busy handing over my work and trying to get last minute errands done before Mexico.

No matter how busy, lazy or broke I am at the time of a looming potluck, I can never bring myself to show up with frozen sausage rolls, store bought food or even a lazy cake – like it’s some sort of cardinal sin for me to contribute those things. Luckily, I have a little repertoire of easy go-to dishes up my sleeve that are delicious crowd-pleasers, but that I can whip up fairly quickly in my sleep. They’re like wardrobe basics, or dressing to a formula on a morning when you just can’t be bothered but still want to look presentable.

Siew yoke (crispy roast pork)

One thing that I’ll often make is my take on Chinese crispy roast pork, or “siew yoke” – it’s hugely popular with omnivore friends and acquaintances from all walks of life and I always get asked for the recipe!

Siew yoke (crispy roast pork)

I still never know what to do when this happens – see, I don’t write, use or keep recipes. I can explain what goes in a dish in terms of ingredients, but for the rest of it – from quantity to preparation steps to cooking time – I just go by instinct, common sense and experience. There are lots of factors you can only consider at the time of cooking (which is why many inexperienced cooks follow recipes to the letter but still have disasters), and I feel like it’s a huge hassle to have to jot all that detail down.

In the end, I decided to write up my siew yoke recipe – my first written recipe ever – figuring it couldn’t be that hard. It’s just roast pork! Ha! So here it is – not as simple as I’d like, and you’ll have to forgive the guesswork vagueness of the quantities as I never measure anything and add stuff in more than one go.

This is the first of two posts based on two dishes I had to conjure up for this recent potluck – the next will focus on Taiwanese stewed beef noodle soup.

Indie’s Crispy Siew Yoke

Things to note
The key to great, crispy, crackling is the complete absence of moisture in the pork skin before cooking. In this recipe, we do a few things to ensure we dry out the skin as much as possible.

When choosing your pork, buy free range at your local farmer’s market. Try and find one which is neatly trimmed and cleaned (some butchers do a lazy job of trimming hairs etc.) and very close to the same thickness all the way through the cut of belly.

Prep time: About 20-30 minutes, unconsecutive. Cooking time: About an hour
The cooking times and temperatures in this recipe are all based on a 1 kg piece of pork (give or take about 100g).

What you’ll need

  • 1 kg free range pork belly
  • Chilli bean sauce (in a jar from most Chinese/Asian grocers)
  • Red fermented bean curd (in a jar from most Chinese/Asian grocers – sounds odd to the uninitiated, but this is essential!)
  • Chinese five spice powder
  • Rock salt
  • White pepper
  • Garlic – minced
  • Brown sugar
  • Premium soy sauce
  • Sesame oil
Left to right: soy sauce, rock salt, five spice powder, red fermented bean curd, chilli bean sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil

Left to right: soy sauce, rock salt, five spice powder, red fermented bean curd, chilli bean sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil

Prepare the marinade

Mash up 4-5 pieces of the fermented bean curd
Mix with about:
   2 tablespoons of the chilli bean paste
   About 2 tablespoon of soy sauce
   Plenty of minced garlic to taste
   2-3 tsp of brown sugar, melted
   Good sprinkle of salt
   Five spice powder – depends on how much you like it, but you don’t need very much
   About 2 tsp of sesame oil
Mix well!

Crushing the fermented bean curd

Crushing the fermented bean curd

Now, the Pork!

  1. Clean the pork, trim any excess hairs and make sure the skin very dry
  2. Pour the marinade into a dish big enough for the pork and deep enough that it goes at least 2/3 up the height of the meat while lying flat
  3. Put the pork into the dish, meat side down so that it’s in the marinade – make sure skin side is up and does not touch the liquid at all!
  4. Brush or rub marinade on the sides of the pork that are not already covered by marinade (again, being careful with not touching the skin on top).
  5. Score the skin of the meat with a sharp knife – vertical scores about 2-3cm apart. Make sure not to cut too deep.
  6. Cover the skin with salt – lots of it! This is to bring out all the moisture in the skin so that it “crackles” well!
  7. After 20 minutes, you’ll find that the skin has “sweated”. Rub off this moisture with a paper towel (pat dry), add more salt, repeating this process about 3 times
  8. Meanwhile, marinate for at least 2 hours, leaving it in the refrigerator. I find it better if it’s 4-5 hours. Longer than this and the acids in the marinade can start to “cook” the outermost layer of meat, making the bottom couple of millimetres quite tough
  9. If you have time to marinate for 4 hours or more, leave the pork in the fridge uncovered to further dry out the skin.
  10. If the skin hasn’t had sufficient time to dry out before cooking, GET OUT YOUR HAIRDRYER! That’s right: hairdryer. You’re going to be a piggy stylist. I would probably do this step regardless. Blow dry the pork skin for approximately 15 mins on LOW HEAT or cold setting. Make sure it’s not too warm, or it’ll start to cook the meat!
  11. Preheat the oven to 190°C (if you have an old oven with bad heat circulation, you might want to try 200).
  12. Repeat the salting/sweating/drying process from steps 6-7 one more time.
  13. Sprinkle a bit of Five Spice powder all over the skin, just a little bit, but spread evenly all over. Cover with a thin but even layer of salt.
  14. Wipe/clean the marinade off the pork meat, making sure it’s dry
  15. Place the pork directly on an oven rack, so that the juices will drip through it. Put a roasting dish or whatever on the rack underneath to catch the juices. You can make other things, like gravy, with this afterwards.
  16. Roast on 190°C for 10 mins on fan
  17. Turn the heat down to 180°C and roast for a further 20 mins.
  18. Wipe off any excess salt and moisture (if any) from the skin. Turn the oven setting to “Grill” (or “Broil”, if you’re in America). Grill for 22 minutes. The reason for this is that the grill setting focuses on heat from above, which is what is going to make that crackling crackle!
  19. Turn the oven setting to “Fan Grill” (or grill or broil if your oven doesn’t have that setting) and the temperature up to 200 and grill for 3 minutes. If you don’t have fan grill, leave it on “grill” but turn the heat up to 220 for these last 3 minutes. This will direct heat from the top of the oven straight onto the skin of the pork, helping it blister and finishing off the crackling nicely.
  20. Remove from oven rack and place on a large wooden chopping board. Allow the pork and juices to rest for about 10 minutes.
  21. Slice pork along the vertical scoring, and then again horizontally along the same intervals so that from a birds-eye view it looks like 3cm square pieces, as per the second photo above and the one below.
  22. Serve! Gobble!
Slice the pork so that the crackling layer is in 3 cm squares

Slice the pork so that the crackling layer is in 3 cm squares

ShanDong Mama

I want to tell you about an unassuming, homey dumpling eatery located in an arcade off Chinatown. Among the abundance of dumpling houses in this area, ShanDong Mama has several points of difference which elevate it above its competition.

ShanDong Mama

I’ve been on the hunt for a really good dumpling since I moved to Melbourne 18 months ago. It’s not that places that serve them are hard to come by (they’re everywhere!) See, the main problem with Melbourne’s “dumpling scene” is that it’s still dominated by a few big old powerhouses. These places – many of which are all named, for some inexplicable reason “Shanghaisomethingorrather – serve dumplings that mostly fall into the Northern Chinese variety.

Shanghai Village Dumplings - one of Melbourne's most popular dumpling houses

Shanghai Village Dumplings – one of Melbourne’s most popular dumpling houses


The upside of these dominating establishments – which are crazy popular with all demographics and packed full to bursting every night – is that they have ensured the average young Melbournian has at least a basic experience of Asian dumpling consumption. Yes, this adopted city of mine has its own unique dumpling “culture” – and I’m grateful, even if it’s a bit unbalanced and one-dimensional.

Still, from time to time I get the alarming question “what is a dumpling?” and the rather impossible one “will I like them?”

Well. Originally, “dumpling” referred to lumps of dough the British liked to eat with suet – think gnocchi, without the deliciousness of egg and potato in the mix, but with animal fat. Appetising?
Thankfully, international cuisine has hijacked the word in the last century! Today, the Asian “dumpling” is basically any food encased in a wrapper of any shape or form.
So, will you like them? Unless you have an innate issue with the concept of food wrapped in other food, with the right knowledge, you shouldn’t have to look too far to find a type suited to your tastes.

But I digress. A lot. Can one digress before one has even begun? This isn’t a discourse on Dumpling Education of the masses – that’s what the Dumpling Dictionary I’m building is for.

I couldn’t ignore the light hype that started around ShanDong Mama in the Melbourne food blogosphere earlier this year. The reviews told the story of “Mama” from the ShanDong province of China, an area known for cuisine based around its abundance of fresh seafood. It was all a bit charming, and I decided I had to check it out for myself.

ShanDong Mama

The decor is basic, but the restaurant is neat and modern and it certainly doesn’t exude the same greasy scunginess of many of its rivals.

They’ve also managed to produce the clearest (read: most English-user-friendly) menu of any Chinese dumpling restaurant I’ve seen anywhere which isn’t an overpriced fusion establishment. Each dish isn’t merely listed cryptically as a badly translated Chinese dish name but described in detail with each ingredient mentioned. Vegetarian dishes are clearly marked, the majority of the vego dishes also being vegan. They also have a kind of dorky sense of humour… (evidence below)

ShanDong Mama

In fact, as far as marketing, presentation and image are concerned, this little family business ticks most of those boxes you wouldn’t expect its peers to tick. A bit of sleuthing around Google tells me that Mama’s daughter and godson handle these PR and marketing matters, even cleverly inviting bloggers to sample their food when they first opened.

But what about the dumplings, you ask? Well, the first thing that any dumpling amateur will notice is that their panfried dumplings look somewhat different from other Chinese fried dumplings. They’re long and open-ended and have sort of angular/rectangular-ish bottoms where they join up to the dumpling-next-door. Now, I’ve tried doing a bit of research but I can’t claim to know whether this is a traditional feature of a dumpling from the ShanDong province. It is, however, eye-catching and if not authentic then certainly a neat presentation feature.

ShanDong Mama

ShanDong Mama

Visual quirks aside, the dumplings here are among the tastiest I’ve had so far in Melbourne. The filling is beautifully fresh, and gives the impression of being lovingly hand mixed rather than carelessly mushed up and mass produced. (This YouTube video will prove that impression correct!) You feel like you’re eating “real food” here – homemade and fresh – a rare thing in a inexpensive dumpling house.

Break open a dumpling and you’ll see – each ingredient distinctly identifiable to the naked eye rather than disappearing into processed-ball-of-meat-land; each ingredient easily savour-able by the palate.

Boiled fish dumpling with fresh mackerel, mixed and whipped by hand, coriander, chives, with home made dumpling skin.

Boiled fish dumpling with fresh mackerel, mixed and whipped by hand, coriander, chives, with home made dumpling skin.

Filling combos here are rather refreshing and creative compared to your typical pork-and-cabbage varieties (although they did also have that option on my first visit). The vegan option is based around finely grated fresh zucchini, which is certainly a nice change.

On multiple visits I have tried the “Melbourne Dumpling”, the pork and dill, the beef, the vegan, and of course, Mama’s signature dish – the mackerel dumpling in both its fried and boiled forms.

The zucchini lends a bit of sweetness as well as satisfying bite and subtle crunch to the veg dumpling, which is fast becoming one of my favourite simple vege-based dishes.

Vegan zucchini dumplings with crushed tofu, spring onion, coriander and ginger

Vegan zucchini dumplings with crushed tofu, spring onion, coriander and ginger

Vegan zucchini dumplings with crushed tofu, spring onion, coriander and ginger

Vegan zucchini dumplings with crushed tofu, spring onion, coriander and ginger

Lacking that dodgy “fishy taste” that often comes with seafood in budget restaurants, the mackerel dumplings are quite worthy of the positive reviews and are undeniably fresh and nicely textured. The menu describes how the fish is whipped into a mousse by hand and seasoned with coriander, ginger and chives.

While delicious and a little different, there’s nothing too remarkable about the meat dumplings I sampled. Every dumpling traditionalist would ask how the boiled pork jiazoi went, and I can tell you – above average. This certainly isn’t the iffy, suspiciously pink “pork” filling you’ll find at Camy’s, and definitely superior to the lumpy ball syndrome in Shanghai Village’s pork dumplings, but I’ve had better. I have yet to try the chicken dumplings and the prawn option.

The “Melbourne Dumplings”, a contemporary house recipe, were a little bit of a let down. Boasting such an impressive number of ingredients (four types of seafood, chicken, lemon rind, olive oil, parsley and garlic) that it leaves you wondering if they could possibly all go together, it was a bit anticlimactic in its lack of flavour explosion. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the flavour – it was still a more-than-decent dumpling – but it just lacked the wow-factor I was hoping for. This offering was supposedly inspired by Melbourne’s multicultural food scene, which explains the odd European additions of olive oil, parsley and lemon rind? I feel like this dumpling somehow fell prey to something similar to the Pizza Topping Complexity Syndrome, where eventually, once exceeding an ingredients threshold for optimum tastiness, it all starts to go downhill a little.

Pork potstickers

Pork potstickers

ShanDong Mama

Mama’s handmade jiao dough has a good, springy consistency rather than a gooey one. The wrappers used for the panfried dumplings differ from those wrapping the boiled dumplings – which is really as it should be! Too many budget restaurants serve their potstickers (panfried dumplings) with the same gloopy, doughy wrappers as their shui jiao (boiled dumplings), which immediately makes them complete failures as potstickers as they just don’t crisp up to the appropriate texture for being considered a potsticker.

The “right” wrappers allow the panfried dumplings at ShanDong Mama to maintain their unique tunnel-like shape, which, when I now think about it, actually optimises crispy surface area! The browning also releases a very subtle sweetness in the dough – caramelised dumpling, anyone? Additionally, the wrappers used for the different dumpling varieties also differ – for example, the boiled mackerel dumplings are encased by a very thin, delicate skin, its fried version uses a slightly thicker skin, while the boiled pork dumpling uses a medium-thick homemade skin but its panfried counterpart uses a medium skin of what is almost certainly a different type of dough. Dough Science: an exercise in texture balance, flavour pairing and structural integrity.

Sweet and sour shredded cabbage salad with a dash of sesame oil

Sweet and sour shredded cabbage salad with a dash of sesame oil

I’ve been so busy trying Mama’s dumplings that I’ve only had an opportunity to try two of the eatery’s other dishes; however, both were fantastic! The simple shredded cabbage salad packed a massive flavour punch I definitely wasn’t expecting with its sweet and tangy dressing, and some fragrant sesame oil thrown in. The black fungus salad was similarly tasty in a surprising way, and to boot, both dishes were vegan-friendly and only two out of a fair many herbivorous offerings!

In reading other reviews, I’d stay away from the noodles-based mains and stick to dumplings if you’re after a carby fix!

Black fungus tossed in aged vinegar, sesame oil and garlic

Black fungus tossed in aged vinegar, sesame oil and garlic

The dumpling hunt isn’t over yet, but I’ve certainly found a favourite among the inner city’s numerous cheap dumpling houses – and I will be returning again… and again.

Address: Shop 7, 200 Bourke St, Melbourne 3000
Website: http://www.facebook.com/shandongmama

Shandong Mama on Urbanspoon

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